Michal Bazan: Nuclear power and net-zero emissions. Why Sizewell C is key to reaching our climate change targets.

8 Dec

Michał Bazan is a policy researcher with the British Conservation Alliance.

Ten years ago, the coalition government presented a revised statement on its energy policy in order to meet the target of at least one new nuclear plant being operational in the UK by 2020. It identified eight possible nuclear plant construction sites.

Toshiba’s withdrawal from Moorside power station in Cumbria, followed by Hitachi quitting both the Oldbury project in South Gloucestershire and the Wyffa Newydd project in Wales, posed difficult questions about the future of nuclear energy in the UK. While the 2020 target is now out of reach, the imminent approval of the Sizewell C power station in Suffolk gives us hope for a more innovative and greener future.

This future is hard to imagine without nuclear power as the main source of energy for the country. Renewable sources like wind and solar need to be a part of a newly built system, but they cannot fully replace such an efficient reliable source of energy as an atom. Nuclear constitutes 21 per cent of the UK’s electricity generation, which is higher than many other European nations. The downside is that by 2030, only one of the operating plants will be still available for use. Action is needed now.

The concerns of some about the high price we are paying now (Sizewell C is to cost around £20 billion) should not overshadow our profits (not necessarily monetary ones) in the future. While the operational costs are similar as the ones of coal power plants, a solid supply of 3.2 gigawatts of energy able to provide electricity for six million households without paying the high price of polluting the environment – a price which is often overlooked because premature deaths and other societal costs are difficult to quantify.

The investment in Sizewell C seems to be a good combination of innovative approach with experience from building Hinkley Point C (a twin powerplant which is to be completed by 2023) – the latter helping to save time and money used for the project. This is crucial as prolongation of construction generates significant costs.

Moreover, the timing of the investment gives us hope that the advantages of Sizewell C might be even bigger because more and more innovative ideas are popping up. We might see new, more efficient fuels being introduced, better ways of storing or reusing nuclear waste, or the possibility of obtaining highly valuable chemical substances (to be used for medical purposes, for example).

The key is to do what the UK government also promised a decade ago – avoiding spending excessive amounts of public money on liberalising the energy sector. EDF, which is a main constructor of the Sizewell C plant, is a subsidiary of a company partly owned by the French state. Although not completely free of the hand of the state, that is a step in the right direction.

The Government should focus on finding a clever way of managing the project’s finances so that the main decisions are taken by scientists and managers, rather than politicians. The main concern of investors is possible liability in the case of a nuclear accident.

The Government was proposing a CFD (contract for difference scheme which ‘insures’ against the change in current and future value of an asset) but is now considering employing a more incentivising and investor-friendly RAB (regulated asset base) scheme for the Sizewell C construction, where the developer is guaranteed a secure return on their investment.

It is worth mentioning that (even partial) privatisation of the energy sector does not mean a brute pursuit of short-term profits. The price and quality of the service are not the only things that count – the corporate social responsibility and the company’s reputation pay off in the long run. EDF knows that and is focusing not only on providing the UK with a clean and safe energy source but also on doing that in tandem with the local community in Suffolk.

The Sizewell C project will be a seismic undertaking, with almost 8,000 people employed on-site at its peak – many of them locally. EDF is listening carefully to the voice of the local community, resulting in a recent change in the project to limit the HGV traffic to curb negative effects for the residents and the environment. EDF is working with National Trust to ensure the Dunwich Heath and Beach area will not be negatively affected and the 30-day public consultation will be held to take the opinion of opponents such as TASC (‘together against Sizewell C’) into account.

The Chernobyl disaster made it easy to see nuclear energy as a threat rather than a possibility (although its reliability is proven). But it was not the technology that was faulty – it was the totalitarian regime of the USSR, which made it impossible to safely and efficiently use that technology. Now, the UK has a chance to show the other side of the coin – how benign results can come about from unrestricted innovation, technological progress and the free market.

Sizewell C could become one of the symbols of the new, green era and an inspiration for others to follow. All we need is to create a political, legal and economic environment where innovation and progress can occur, and that means investing in technology that works.