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Boris goes all out for UK nuclear

I do not think we should be building any new nuclear reactors until we have a geological disposal facility available.’ That applies to all scales of nuclear, SMRs as well as big plants, they all produce wastes. Under the heading ‘Boris Johnson’s fixation on nuclear is a threat to Britain’s energy supply’, Times chief leader writer Simon Nixon said ‘Boris Johnson’s plans to build at least six or seven new nuclear power stations is the wrong strategy for meeting the government’s need to ensure the UK’s energy security, lower public bills and achieve its net-zero target. Britain’s track record on building nuclear power stations is almost as dire as its record in building garden bridges’

Nevertheless, despite negative views like this, Boris ploughed on. Indeed he managed to turn this criticism around, asking ‘why have the French got 56 nuclear reactors and we’ve got barely six?.’ He said we needed ‘big ticket’ nuclear solutions and also looked to having Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) before 2030.  Not everyone is convinced that SMR’s can deliver, but Johnson’s confidence in them may have been the result of a meeting with Last Energy, a US nuclear promoter backed by Elon Musk, which is pushing a simple fast-track mini PWR, at 20 MW, far smaller than the 470 MW Rolls Royce system. There was talk of 100s of units being deployed across the UK.  Last Energy’s business credo  ‘Innovate on the delivery model, not the reactor’, may have appealed to Boris. 

However, on the renewables side, while he was still keen on offshore wind (‘Energy companies tell me they can get an offshore wind turbine upright and generating in less than 24 hours’), the prospects for on-shore wind, which had begun to look more promising, seem to have taken a hit in favour of more nuclear- on shore wind once again getting some Tory ‘eyesore’ backlash, despite it actually attracting 80% public support. The expansion of the ECO energy saving scheme was also hit, despite energy efficiency arguably being the cheapest option of all.  

So when the new energy security strategy finally emerged it was not surprising that there was a commitment to 24 GW of nuclear by 2050, no new targets for on shore wind and very little on the energy savings side, just a £30m ‘heat pump investment accelerator competition’.   But at least a 50 GW offshore wind target by 2030 was confirmed, with up to 5GW of it being floating systems, coupled with a doubling of the low-carbon hydrogen target to 10GW by 2030, with at least half being green hydrogen. However, on shore wind will only get limited support: communities can volunteer for a project (although they could have anyway) and possibly get cheaper power, but with no significant changes in planning rules.  There will though be some PV planning rule changes to help solar expand- with an up to a five-fold increase in deployment expected by 2035. If achieved that would be a massive 70GW, although no target was specified.

Apart from the lamentable lack of support for on-shore wind and, even more provocatively, for energy saving, the nuclear expansion was the most controversial part. The strategy report says ‘a new government body, Great British Nuclear, will be set up immediately to bring forward new projects, backed by substantial funding, and we will launch the [already announced]  £120 million Future Nuclear Enabling Fund this month. We will work to progress a series of projects as soon as possible this decade, including Wylfa site in Anglesey. This could mean delivering up to eight reactors, equivalent to one reactor a year instead of one a decade, accelerating nuclear in Britain’.

Why nuclear?

It’s hard to see why Johnson thinks a big nuclear push is needed, or a good idea- apart from catching up with France! A bit more credibly, the strategy report stresses the importance of energy independence, but the nuclear programme has of late been mostly based on imported (French) technology and expertise- as well as funding from overseas.  It now looks as if he will no longer rely on China for any of this, but the new RAB funding scheme will allow nuclear plant developers like EDF to put a surcharge on UK power consumers bills to raise the necessary capital for construction in advance of any power being supplied.  That may be independence of a kind, but the profits do still go abroad

And it will be a decade or more before any of the proposed new nuclear plants (at Sizewell and elsewhere) are running- assuming all goes well.  So we will get hit with the costs now, or at least soon, but not get the benefits until far in the future. So much for helping to cut costs for hard pressed consumers

The energy independence idea is also not as urgent as it might appear. The UK does not import significant amounts of Russian gas, unlike Germany (and Austria), where admittedly things could get bad unless urgent action is taken.  But they are doing that, Germany backing renewables even more strongly, and both still being opposed to nuclear. That choice has been reinforced by the war in Ukraine which has illustrated just how risky it can be to have nuclear plants in conflict zones. The possibility of terrorist drone attacks apart, the UK may not (yet) face risks like that, but its coastal plants will increasingly face risks from climate change driven sea level rises and storm surges.  

One of the other key problems for nuclear has also been pointed up in response to the UK expansion plan – waste storage being a key one. Claire Corkhill, a professor of nuclear material degradation at the University of Sheffield said ‘I do not think we should be building any new nuclear reactors until we have a geological disposal facility available.’ That applies to all scales of nuclear, SMRs as well as big plants, they all produce wastes. 

Overall, it does seem odd to be pushing nuclear so hard.  For example, if it was really about an energy gap, it would be easy for renewables to fill it. RenewableUK says the UK could end its dependence on gas and replace it with renewable energy within the next 5 years – if the limit imposed on the amount of onshore wind was removed and budgets raised for deployment. Energy saving could do that too.  If it was really about jobs, then, as the UKERC has recently pointed out, renewable energy can create at least 2 times more jobs than nuclear, while investment in energy saving can create 5 times as many. If it was really about variable renewables and grid balancing, well the last thing we need is more large inflexible nuclear plants. And if it was really about costs and consumer bills, then why go for nuclear, the most expensive option. If that sort of money was available, why not go for tidal lagoons and tidal current turbines?  

However, all is not entirely lost. The 50 GW by 2030 offshore wind target is a significant  one, as is the hoped for 5-fold by 2035 PV solar expansion – putting the 24 GW by 2050 nuclear target into some sort of perspective. But we don’t really need it. And judging by the gross completion problems with the EPRs in France and Finland, and the problems with China’s version of it, the UK’s new 8 plant nuclear plan, with its ‘one reactor per year’ average installation target, seems very unlikely to be realised. 

All in all, the offshore wind and solar parts aside, not much of a viable security plan, and a bit thin in any case, with lots of targets but very little detail. Indeed, the Times leader (8/4/22) said ‘the number 8 appears to have been plucked out of the air’ and overall it was ‘little more than a glorified press release’, with the lack of effective commitment to energy saving making it ‘a cop out’. While Greenpeace said ‘the urgency of the climate crisis needed an urgent response. Sadly, the government’s energy security plan didn’t deliver.’ Not a lot of support then across the political spectrum. 


April 11, 2022 - Posted by | politics, UK

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