How will we keep the lights on in the UK?
Calls to combat climate change have gained traction in the pandemic, as Covid-19 has heightened sensitivities to risks of other kinds.
In the thick of one catastrophe, policymakers have become more receptive to avoiding others. But the idea that we can meet our energy needs entirely through wind turbines, solar power and the like is for the birds.
The first new nuclear power station to be built in this country for 25 years is under construction at Hinkley in Somerset
New nuclear will have to be part of the mix and, unfortunately, the UK’s record on this front is abysmal. The role of nuclear power in the UK’s energy strategy is under discussion at the highest level in government.
Talks are taking place in the context of a new ten-point plan to hit zero carbon emissions in the next 30 years, expected later this month.
As recently as the late 1990s, nuclear power plants were supplying around a quarter of our annual electricity generation. This has dwindled as old plants have been shut down and not replaced.
Today around 20 per cent of electricity is generated from nuclear but almost half of the current capacity is due to be retired by 2025.
The first new nuclear power station to be built in this country for 25 years is under construction at Hinkley in Somerset.
A decision looms on another, Sizewell C, in Suffolk, which is opposed by protesters who say it threatens ecology and wildlife. Boris Johnson, however, is said to be close to giving it the green light.
For decades there has been public concern about nuclear power, fuelled by disasters like Chernobyl.
Yet it is capable of large-scale electricity supply without CO2 emissions and, in another key benefit, it is not reliant on the changeable British weather to provide enough solar or wind power.
The UK SMR consortium, led by Rolls-Royce, has announced it expects to create 6,000 regional UK jobs within the next five years, if the UK Government makes a clear commitment that enables a fleet of 16 small modular reactor (SMR) power stations
Among the problems around nuclear new build is the reluctance of UK operators to invest in risky projects. Centrica, formerly part of British Gas, was the last major British player in a game which has been ceded to the French giant EDF and the Chinese.
The UK’s flagship engineering company, Rolls-Royce, however, has big ambitions for its Small Modular Reactors (SMRs).
If its sales pitch is to be believed, SMRs could save the UK’s nuclear industry and also Rolls-Royce itself, whose aero engines business has been flattened by Covid.
Rolls claims that, with the right government backing, building SMRs will create 6,000 jobs over five years.
The plan is for them to be largely built in the UK, with factory sites in existing manufacturing hubs in the North and Midlands. Up to 40,000 skilled jobs could be generated, and local supply chains boosted.
The export market, Rolls reckons, could be worth more than £250 billion. The Rolls consortium has had £18 million from the Government and is in line for £217 million more, which its consortium will match, to get it through a four-year licensing phase ensuring it is safe and ecologically sound.
On the present timetable, SMRs will take around a decade to plug in. But Rolls argues if the Government put up another £2 billion it could accelerate the programme.
A display of state backing would also, it believes, help it to pull in more private investment.
A couple of billion quid is a lot when there are multiple calls on the public purse and critics have been sniffy about SMRs, citing the expense and the risks involved.
Rolls has not come up with a magic formula to solve our energy dilemma, but it must be preferable to relying on Chinese and French conventional nuclear facilities – and it will help keep our kettles on.