Hinkely Point C construction (Photo: EDF Energy)UK-based Energy Systems Catapult said on 18 June that a new analysis has found that committing to a further 10GW of new nuclear beyond Hinkley Point C is a "low regrets" option for the UK as it targets a Net Zero economy. However, it stressed that costs need to fall significantly if the technology is to fulfil its long-term potential.

The Nuclear for Net Zero report also strengthens the case that a small modular light water reactor (SMR) programme should proceed, similarly focused on the potential for cost-reduction. SMR designs that can deliver cogeneration of heat and power are worth particular attention, the report says.

While wind – in particular offshore wind – now looks the key technology for decarbonising power in the coming decades, trying to meet Net Zero without any new nuclear would put the target at-risk unnecessarily and potentially make the shift to a low carbon economy more expensive, the report said.

The analysis says Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is also an important technology, partly because of its ability to be used in multiple applications – including hydrogen production, while bioenergy with CCS could counter residual emissions from aviation and livestock.

Nuclear for Net Zero used Energy Systems Catapult’s internationally peer-reviewed Energy System Modelling Environment (ESME) – the UK’s leading techno-economic whole system model, which has been used by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), industry, academia and the UK government.  

The underlying nuclear technology-related data and assumptions incorporate the learning from engagement with the nuclear sector and the knowledge from the Energy Technology Institute’s portfolio of knowledge building projects within its nuclear programme, now owned by Energy Systems Catapult.

The analysis found there is a credible path available to realise significant nuclear cost reduction delivering potentially lower costs and risks associated with achieving UK Net Zero, including:

  • An expanded role for new Hinkley Point C-type Generation III+ nuclear reactor for power generation;
  • Advanced Gen IV high-temperature nuclear plants coupled with hydrogen production technology – able to switch between power generation and efficient hydrogen to supply industry, plus heavy road transport and marine freight;
  • SMR deployed with city-scale District Heating Networks – to supply cost-effective low carbon heat for urban homes and businesses.

The potential policy approach for nuclear suggested by the analysis, includes:

  • committing now to around 10 GWe of additional new Gen III+ reactor capacity beyond Hinkley Point C’s 3.2GWe;
  • over the next five years in parallel, supporting stage-gated development programmes for UK deployment of SMR and advanced Gen IV reactors.

Coupled with assessing the progress of alternative low carbon energy technology development, this would provide a clearer indication of the likelihood of realising the benefits from these two technologies to support periodic policy reviews between 2025 to 2035 which would govern the shape of a 2050 UK Net Zero energy system.

The report notes: “If nuclear is able to fulfil its cost reduction potential, and contribute to the challenges of decarbonising heat and hydrogen, around 50GWe of nuclear may be needed by 2050.  However, there is significant uncertainty about the mix within a 50 GWe nuclear portfolio, underlining the importance of stage-gated approaches for both light-water SMRs and advanced Gen IV reactors.”

Energy Systems Catapult nuclear practice manager, Mike Middleton, said: “Nuclear doesn’t need to be expensive if we take the right approach. Achieving Net Zero without nuclear is possible but targeting such a system looks unnecessarily risky, to the point of being unlikely to achieve the end result; and potentially expensive. There are no easy paths to get the entire UK economy to Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050, but there is a credible path available to realise significant nuclear cost reduction delivering potentially lower costs and risks associated with achieving UK Net Zero.”

He advocated firstly, a commitment to a programme of capacity rather than individual unconnected projects and secondly, capitalising on the benefits from deploying units in an uninterrupted construction sequence, with multiple units on the same site where possible. “Provided that costs reduce in line with the analysis we have reported, the deployment decision regarding new large nuclear is not whether to start, but when to stop,” he said.

The UK  Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) welcomed the report. NIA CEO Tom Greatrex said: “It is imperative the government get on and conclude their review of this, so the ‘no regrets’ option highlighted by the Energy Systems Catapult can make progress.”

Horizon Nuclear Power also welcomed the analysis. Horizon CEO Duncan Hawthorne said: “This report shows yet again how nuclear, alongside other clean technologies, can and must be part of the UK’s low carbon future. The analysis also, rightly, sets out the challenge to the industry in terms of cost reduction and we are confident – given our proven design and world leading partners – we can deliver against this.”

He added: “It also goes to the heart of why we are determined to try and ensure that our development at Wylfa Newydd is restarted. An operational Wylfa Newydd will provide enough clean electricity to meet all of Wales’ power demand, domestic and industrial. This would, effectively, make Wales’ electricity supply Net Zero by the early 2030s, delivering on the UK Government’s pledge decades early, and also helping to answer the Welsh Government’s declaration of a Climate Change Emergency.”

Photo: Hinkely Point C construction (Photo: EDF Energy)