Nuclear - a must have for net zero

16 February 2023

Nuclear power is a key mover in meeting Net Zero ambitions but has been hamstrung by a lack of coherent long-term energy policy. That needs to change.

For those with an eye on the science, nuclear’s role in achieving Net Zero is beyond doubt. The only real question concerns the scale of that contribution. Naturally debate has raged. Some of the ‘environmental’ lobby are implacably opposed and strongly argue that nuclear should play no part. Others contend that nuclear power should form the backbone of our future clean energy system. The pragmatic truth probably lies somewhere between those two extremes.

When considering even a relatively modest scale-up of the nuclear contribution, though, there is a clear distinction between approaches. Right now the strategy largely appears to be one of building nuclear plants singly, serially and piecemeal. It’s a stop-start half cocked approach. and it’s an approach that’s not really working. It stifles investment, curtails supply chains and ultimately increases the costs and risks of building a nuclear fleet.

The alternative is a coherent long-term strategy that places nuclear as one of the key pillars of the sustainable energy system right alongside resources like renewables and hydrogen.

For all its economic importance, energy is often relegated to a low priority for policymakers until some kind of disaster strikes when an ill-considered knee-jerk response typically ensues. Short-termism is endemic among politicians and that’s perhaps not surprising when it takes longer than several terms in office to build a single nuclear power station. That needs to change. Our world depends on it.

A recent independent review of the UK’s Net Zero energy policy – the Mission Zero report – concludes that investment in new nuclear is a no-regrets option. However, it also sets out a series of proposals that are required to establish that no-regrets solution as a tangible outcome. Among the recommendations are a call for government to set out intermediate deployment targets for 2035 rather than waiting until 2050.

Along with establishing intermediate targets, the report, led by Chris Skidmore MP, calls for the government to consider increasing the scope of its current ambitions to encourage the development of the supply chain to service a fleet of nuclear projects. All these measures come in addition to calls for nuclear deployment targets designed to capitalise on the opportunities for small modular and advanced reactors, fusion technology and also nuclear uses outside of the power sector.

It’s a ringing endorsement of nuclear power that goes far beyond the current proposed pipeline of new reactors. This approach is clearly reflective of the modern reality of the global energy sector, and a world that is far more concerned about energy security than that of even a year ago. But it also sets out some of the fundamental building blocks that a newly resurgent nuclear energy business needs. Along with long-term and well defined ambitions with intermediate targets, the report recommends a streamlined planning and consenting decision-making process to help overcome bottlenecks in getting new reactor designs approved and support accelerated siting approvals. These are measures that apply just as well to the UK as anywhere else. As Skidmore’s report says: “The main barrier for new nuclear projects is the need for stable, long-term policy and funding commitments given the long time frames involved in the building of nuclear plants.”

The analysis concludes that Net Zero is the growth opportunity of the 21st century. Meanwhile, every credible analysis also reaffirms nuclear as an integral part of our future energy mix. To achieve that goal and reap the economic and environmental benefits the result needs a rethink of energy policy to make it fit for purpose. If we are going to hit Net Zero in time to avert catastrophe then we need all hands on deck. That means opening the door to sustained engagement with nuclear power.

By David Appleyard, Editor, Nuclear Engineering International

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