Thirty miles west of Edinburgh, on a plot of land measuring roughly one-tenth of square mile, sits a bastion of Scottish clean energy production. It’s 35 years since Torness was switched on for the very first time and since then it has produced enough electricity to meet the needs of every home in Scotland for 29 years. But in less than five years’ time Scotland will have no large scale firm clean power at all.
At its height Scotland had 3 GW of nuclear capacity. It was a blink and you miss it moment, but for a brief period, Torness, Hunterston A, Hunterston B, Chapelcross and Dounreay nuclear power stations were all online at the same time. From a tiny land footprint, these stations have provided the backbone of power in Scotland, saving well over 400 million tonnes of carbon emissions in the process. They are Scotland’s most important climate heroes. Nothing else comes even close.
Rather than aping Germany’s environmentally illiterate stance in celebrating the closure of nuclear plants, while burning record amounts of the dirtiest form of coal to make up the gap, Scotland – as its political establishment is usually keen to do – should look to Sweden and Finland, both of which have fully decarbonised power grids using a combination of nuclear and renewables. The arc of sustainability includes countries that can rely on enormous hydro power capacity, but Scotland has incredible wind power potential, a real clean energy trump card.
Building more wind turbines, though, will not help Scotland on still, windless days. Take today for example, nuclear is generating half of Scotland’s power, and all from one station, Torness, which takes up just 0.11 square miles of land. The rest is coming from a mix of wind ( on a comparatively low output day), solar and hydro and a small amount of gas. It’s nuclear and renewables working together to give Scotland the cleanest power in the UK.
The big difference between Scotland and its Nordic friends across the North Sea though, is whilst the Scottish government can’t get beyond a stance stuck in the past and ignorant of climate, both Sweden and Finland are going in the opposite direction.
Earlier this year, Sweden made changes to its law to enable more nuclear stations to be built. Its Deputy Prime Minister said the country needed “fossil-free, cheap electricity” and that “nuclear power is a necessary basis in the energy mix.” Finland too just connected Europe’s most powerful nuclear power plant to the grid – with Finnish customers seeing an immediate read through to much reduced electricity prices. The Finnish Green Party is backing nuclear too, because after all nuclear is just as green as wind or solar. Other countries are also planning to ramp up nuclear, including France, the Netherlands, Ukraine, the US, Canada and South Korea. Even Japan is trying to restart its reactors.
Nuclear naysayers will play the “too slow and too expensive” card but if we built reactors in fleets with a proper strategic programme, we can build them quickly. France built reactors in five years each when they had 30 under construction at once. And existing nuclear is just as cheap as renewables, and, with the right financing models, new nuclear can get there as well too.
There are also signs that the Scottish government policy is increasingly at odds with what the people want. A poll released last week by the pro-growth group, Britain Remade showed there is support with 55 per cent of those polled saying they would support new nuclear in the country if it helped it reach net zero targets, which of course it would. 29 per cent were against. The NIA’s own polling yielded similar results.
Has the time come then for Scotland to change course? It’s not too late: like all countries, it will need clean, reliable, power way past 2050. It was Robert Burns who penned the line, “now’s the day and now’s the hour” – perhaps now, at a point of impending renewal of the Scottish political scene, it is time for science and the environment to be put ahead of simplistic sloganising in finding the right climate future.
Tom Greatrex is the NIA’s Chief Executive