Soaring gas prices, worldwide energy shortages, fears for energy security and an ambition to have net zero carbon by 2050 have put nuclear power back on the map after a decade in the cold.
In the space of just a couple of weeks, the threat of rocketing gas bills and a winter of discontent with electricity cuts have forced the Government to completely rewrite its energy policy.
Ministers and Treasury officials who for years have ignored the UK’s long-term energy needs – and shied away from the huge costs involved – are finally facing up to the harsh reality that the country’s electricity sources are running low on fuel.
Powering up: In several interviews in recent days, Boris Johnson has claimed that all of Britain’s electricity will come from renewable, clean sources by 2035
Tim Stone, chairman of the Nuclear Industry Association, told the Daily Mail: ‘The light bulb is on. The Prime Minister gets it and senses the moment.
‘If Boris Johnson is serious, he will now switch the levers to allow a new fleet of nuclear power plants to be built.’
The PM seems to grasp the enormity of the challenge.
In several interviews in recent days, he has claimed that all of Britain’s electricity will come from renewable, clean sources by 2035.
But he also admitted that to achieve this: ‘We’ve got to get back into nuclear, we’ve got to increase our clean energy generation.’
He also mentioned nuclear in his conference speech. Is this more hot air from the Prime Minister? Or is the light bulb really switched on?
Industry sources suggest Johnson is deadly serious, that he knows his net zero targets cannot be met without bankrupting the country unless nuclear is a significant part of the energy mix.
The UK’s current nuclear fleet, which provides about 17 per cent of our electricity needs, is being retired.
Seven out of the eight existing power stations – all except Sizewell B – are due to be closed between now and 2030.
EDF’s Hinkley Point project is the only new reactor due to come on stream in 2026 with the second in 2027.
We will know how serious the Government is on October 27. The acid test will come when the Chancellor Rishi Sunak presents his Comprehensive Spending Review alongside the Autumn Budget and whether he includes pre-development funding to help get at least two big nuclear plants at Wylfa on Anglesey and Sizewell C in Suffolk off the ground.
If Sunak – who is said to be a nuclear convert – confirms the Treasury will fork out £30million of funding to the Bechtel and Westinghouse consortium hoping to build a plant at Wylfa, then all bets are on.
Once agreed, the US companies will move swiftly to the next critical Feed In Design stage, which itself takes another two years of the 12-year project.
While the £30million may sound tiny compared to the estimated £15billion cost of Wylfa, the granting of funds would be symbolic, showing the Government’s commitment and trust in the new project. And if it is not granted? Expect Bechtel and Westinghouse to walk.
Barbara Rusinko, president of Bechtel Nuclear, Security and Environmental, is optimistic that ministers will give the go-ahead as the Wylfa site has all the prerequisites for such a massive investment.
The island of Anglesey has the right geology, access to cooling water and, crucially, broad community support.
Speaking via Zoom from Washington, Rusinko, says: ‘Wylfa is a fantastic site. It is technically shovel-ready. I am hopeful the Government will support our project because it will help the UK start rebuilding its nuclear energy baseload.’
She adds the Bechtel-Westinghouse consortium has other advantages, mainly that the plant can be built quicker than most because approval for the AP1000 reactor has already been cleared by the UK’s regulatory regime, the GDA.
Buying the site from Hitachi, which pulled out of its Horizon project because it failed to reach an agreement with the Government over funding, should also be easy.
When it comes to the technological know-how, Bechtel and Westinghouse have a strong track record in building AP1000 reactors – the ones at Wylfa would be the same modular design as the six units recently completed elsewhere in the world, the last two at Plant Vogtle in Georgia in the US.
This knowledge, she added, would be useful as key members of the team who worked on earlier reactors would be able to transfer to Wylfa.
Up to 10,000 jobs will be created for this project locally but also across the country. We will also be starting an extensive apprentice programme and bring in students from local universities to work on the project,’ she says.
To date, the Welsh Government, the Isle of Anglesey County Council and cross-party MPs have shown support for Bechtel’s plans, particularly as so many jobs have been lost after the Magnox plant closed down.
Alongside Bechtel’s proposed big reactor, Rolls-Royce is also looking to build SMRs – small modular reactors – on the site, which industry experts say is big enough to take two to four large-scale reactors as well as multiple SMRs.
Nuclear plant: An artist’s impression of the how the new Hinkley Point C power station – which is due to come online in 2026 – will look
One of the advantages of nuclear power is that it is so ‘energy dense’ – the UK’s entire nuclear fleet takes up only 0.8 of a square mile.
Rusinko, an engineer by training who has worked in the nuclear industry for 37 years, hopes to head off any safety concerns held by local lobby groups, pointing out that the UK’s regulatory standards are among the toughest in the world and that advances in technology mean that nuclear plants have never been safer.
Britain, she says, has the once-in-a-lifetime chance to be a world leader in setting the pace for a cleaner environment with its bold carbon targets.
Ivan Baldwin, Bechtel’s UK nuclear business development director, agrees, adding that if the UK is not at the forefront of nuclear technology, it will always fall short, domestically and globally.
‘This is an opportunity for the UK to lead the way in solving the clean energy problem and in levelling-up.
The French put their shoulder to the wheel in the 1970s, and now have 75 per cent of energy from nuclear and one of the cleanest grids anywhere in the world,’ he says.
‘Britain – one of the early pioneers of nuclear power – has the chance now to be an exporter of technology.’
If Johnson and Sunak are to lead the way, they must move fast, grant some seed-corn funding and push through legislation for the RAB model of funding.
Even if Hinkley proceeds as planned, nuclear capacity will fall by about half to 4.4GW by 2030 if no more reactors are built.
To put that into context, 1 GW of electricity powers about 2m homes. Getting Wylfa – and other plants – off the ground would also ensure energy security for decades. These reactors last for at least 60 years, if not for longer, and far longer than another clean source of energy.
As Stone says: ‘If the PM approaches this properly he could leave a legacy every bit as great as the creation of the welfare state in 1948.’
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