While news of nuclear new build is welcome, will it also finally establish the long-term pipeline that the world needs?
As the UK, like much of Europe, hovers on the brink of blackouts and faces stratospheric rises in energy costs, news that the government is backing Sizewell C to the tune of nearly GB£700m is very welcome.
The first state backing for a nuclear project in over 30 years in the UK, the move marks a major step forward in establishing better energy security for the country as well as a low-carbon energy system. Plans to develop the new plant are now approved and the project is expected to create 10,000 skilled jobs and provide reliable power for over 50 years.
The £700m not only brings the government into a 50:50 partnership with EdF but also provides the necessary funds to buy out the China General Nuclear (CGN) stake. This is unquestionably good news for the national economy.
The long-mooted Suffolk project will also build on Hinkley Point C, replicating its design in what it is hoped will to provide more certainty over both the construction schedule and costs. A move to ‘series’ production is suggestive of efficiency of design and lowest cost nuclear power and is flagged as one of the key benefits of SMRs that should just as easily apply to their larger cousins.
Indeed, beyond Hinkley Point and Sizewell C, the government says it is “working at pace to set up Great British Nuclear,” the vehicle tasked with developing a pipeline of up to eight new build nuclear plants as part of a commitment to develop a pipeline of projects. An announcement on this is expected early in the new year.
And this comes as the UK also sets out a new ambition to reduce energy demand by 15% by 2030, backed by a new £1bn insulation programme designed to improve the woeful energy efficiency of much of the country’s housing stock. Again, this is a very welcome development.
As John Pettigrew, Chief Executive of National Grid, rightly says: “It is clear that progressing the energy transition at pace is the surest route to more affordable bills, greater energy resilience and a more energy independent UK.”
A rapid energy transition also represents a tremendous opportunity to build a highly-skilled workforce, to take the lead in technology development, to reaffirm the key role of engineering in our future and to reinvigorate manufacturing.
So, while this latest raft of policy measure are all to be applauded, the underlying story is in fact one of successive failure. A whole raft of nuclear new build should already be underway right across the UK and beyond. The push for energy efficiency is something that should have been embedded in energy policy for decades. That these things are only really happening now in the wake of an energy crisis is perhaps predictable but no less disappointing.
For decades the UK led the world in civil nuclear generation and that lead was frittered away as successive governments dithered over the core objectives of a coherent national energy policy. Today, those objectives are clear, but consider the situation when the issue in Ukraine is resolved. That could potentially prompt yet another about face in policy and a swift return to business as usual. The benefits of a long-term energy policy that includes a pipeline of nuclear new build is beyond doubt. And yet even the most optimistic souls must conclude that, sadly, given previous experience doubts still remain over long-term energy policy.
By David Appleyard, Editor, Nuclear Engineering International