The UK Government made history in June 2019 when it became the first leading economy to commit to achieving Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050. A very welcome and ambitious move, which then raised the question – “How do we get there?” It is clear to most analysts that the challenge is so great – and so complex – that we need all of the low-carbon technologies available to us, with substantial rollout of all options essential.
Whilst there are pros and cons to different low carbon options, it’s important that the focus becomes replacing carbon-emitting technology with cleaner alternatives, not a battle between the “good guys” for who is best. I passionately believe that there’s a prominent role for nuclear energy in the mix that gets us to 2050’s target – alongside copious quantities of renewables, carbon capture, energy efficiency and behavioural change!
Our civil nuclear fleet already provides around 20% of UK electricity – representing 40% of our total low carbon electricity – safely and dependably. But that number will shrink before it can grow, as some of our existing plants will soon reach the end of their operating lifetimes.
Of our current reactors, only Sizewell B is set to operate into the 2030s – and hopefully beyond – so it’s the only one of today’s plants which stands any chance of contributing to our generation mix in 2050. Also – our overall use of electricity can only be heading upwards through electrification of sectors such as heat and transport.
So it’s clear we need lots more nuclear – to replace the retiring stations and to boost the overall output. We must see Hinkley Point C – currently under construction in Somerset – brought online as planned around the middle of this decade. And we need to see progress on the other planned “large scale” reactors – not least Sizewell C, which is destined to be a repeat of the Hinkley Point C design, and thus should benefit from experience gained during that project’s construction. It’s also important that the planned projects at Bradwell in Essex, Wylfa on Anglesey and Moorside in Cumbria should continue or else be revitalised.
But that won’t be nearly enough. And reliance on massive GW scale plants has shown itself to be fraught with challenges. Investment and financing demands are enormous, construction timescales are long and the number of suitable sites is diminishing – it’s no coincidence that all the projects currently planned are on existing nuclear sites. So we need to think differently and look to designs which can be financed more easily, built more rapidly and deployed on new sites (not necessarily on the coast).
And that’s where smaller reactors come in. We’re learning that despite the economies of scale in larger plants, the economics and practicalities of getting them built need addressing. So one focus in the near term for the UK is Small Modular Reactors (SMRs).
The first generation of these are based on traditional technology and allow much faster manufacture (the vast majority in UK facilities) and faster construction. Financing is easier – and they don’t need to be located on the coast to ensure colossal supplies of cooling water – so the option to utilise new locations and grow a fleet of these units is very attractive to industry and policymakers alike.
A number of variants are under consideration – but NNL is a partner in the UKSMR consortium led by Rolls Royce. It’s important to recognise, though, that these smaller reactors are needed as well as the larger ones like Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C – not instead.
The nuclear element of this work is significant and in NNL we’re leading an extensive £46m package of work under the “Advanced Fuel Cycle Programme” working with supply chain companies and universities all over the UK (and some institutions overseas too) to develop more efficient and resilient fuel designs and more effective recycle and waste management technologies for the future. Some of the Advanced Nuclear Technologies which may use these developments may take a decade or so to come to commercialisation, but they still form an important part of the toolkit which we will need to hit that Net Zero goal in 2050.
Finally, we need also to recognise that there is a role for low carbon electricity (including nuclear) to help support the decarbonisation of other sectors. In this respect, nuclear power (especially some of the more advanced designs currently in development) can be ideally suited both to the production of heat for homes, factories and offices, and for the efficient production of hydrogen.
Hydrogen has the potential to be a critically important energy vector in the society of the future, for low-carbon transportation and for industrial applications. Of course, it’s vital that the hydrogen can be produced efficiently and without generating CO2 during that process, and advanced nuclear power plants – including high temperature gas-cooled reactors – have been shown to be well suited for this, with the option to use heat directly to generate the hydrogen.
My company, NNL, has recently produced an insightful new report – “Advanced Nuclear for Heat and Hydrogen” – on this topic, which is available on our website.
Overall, the future prospects for the UK nuclear sector are very strong, and the opportunity for the sector to help the UK “build back better” after the economic challenges of both Brexit and Covid-19 cannot be ignored. This was recognised in the Government’s 10 Point Plan and the Energy White Paper, both published before Christmas, which confirmed Government support for both conventional nuclear and newer, smaller designs.
Nuclear underpins high quality jobs in some of the parts of the country where the economy has been hit hardest. It offers huge potential for innovation and for UK manufacturing. It creates significant export opportunities for the UK to capitalise on our talent, track record and creativity. But perhaps most importantly, it’s helping to deliver a clean, sustainable future for the UK – and the world.