Chris Skidmore: Nuclear power. More small reactors in the future? Fine. But we need more big ones soon if the lights are to stay on.

27 Sep

Chris Skidmore was Science Minister between 2018-2020, and Energy Minister in 2019 when he signed Net Zero into law. 

Over the past week, energy supplier companies seem to have been falling like dominoes: People’s Energy, Bulb, Green Supplier; my own energy company, Avro, went bust as I was drafting this piece. It’s not clear how far the contagion will spread, but what is clear is that we need an urgent rethink of how we shift from an overdependence on gas towards more secure and constant energy provision for the future: one in which the UK won’t be held ransom for by other nations.

The problem has long in coming – and the stresses of the pandemic only compounded a sector under pressure. Energy prices in the UK are currently among the highest in Europe due in part to a wider supply crunch in gas, with wholesale prices currently at some 250 per cent since January. Ofgem has confirmed that customers should expect energy price increases by at least £135 this winter, putting families in tough financial positions right after the pandemic.

These price increases are likely to decimate small to medium energy suppliers, who will not be able to handle the increasing prices and may collapse – in turn putting pressure on the larger suppliers to fulfil the contracts, straining our entire energy supply network. There are legitimate worries that, of the 70 energy suppliers the UK started the year with, only a mere ten will survive.

The status quo is clearly unsustainable: the UK energy market can no longer afford to be so heavily dependent on the pricing of gas, unreliable weather patterns for wind and solar – and we must not return to coal.

This provides us with both the brilliant opportunity and financial incentive (or perhaps imperative) to invest and grow the UK’s nuclear fleet. We no longer have the luxury of kicking this can down the road, we need investment into new nuclear power facilities as soon as possible.

Already, we have maxed out the lifetime extensions of our current fleet: it is time to build and expand afresh. And we don’t have much time to waste. Currently, nuclear power is responsible for 20 per cent of our energy needs but, by 2025, over half our nuclear power stations will be forced into retirement, leaving a massive gap of in our energy supply capabilities.

This will undoubtably cause the current price run to look like a drop in the proverbial ocean, as wind and solar power will not be enough to cover for this shortfall.

It would not be out of the realm of possibility for government to be faced with the choice between rolling blackouts – increasing our dependence on gas, and forcing Ministers to stomach exponential price increases, or else to return to increased coal power usage.

No option here is even remotely palatable and, thankfully, we still have time to do the correct and environmentally responsible action of investing in the nuclear industry. Yet despite the fact that nuclear power is safe, sustainable and economically beneficial in the long run, the British nuclear industry ,and its potential for providing a clean, sustainable source of net zero carbon energy, remains curiously absent from the policy negotiating table.

It is not too late to have a clear U.K. nuclear plan: indeed, to do so should be a vital mechanism on the transition away from carbon intensive power sources, a transition that cannot rely on wind and solar given their unpredictability. Investing now in the development and construction of new UK nuclear plants is the sensible and rational choice, as nuclear power can run all day and night, whether the wind is blowing or still, and will not be dependent on foreign supply chains.

At the same time, nuclear plants require scarcely any land supply: wind farms require 360 times the land area to produce the same energy as one nuclear facility; solar farms, 75 times the land mass. For an island like the UK, whose constraints on space are more likely to be determined by laboursome and delayed planning wrangling over wind and solar farms, nuclear should be a no-brainer.

Sovereignty is also key here: energy security will be increasingly top of the agenda in energy policy discussions, as our dependence on gas pipelines and interconnectors become newsworthy. New nuclear can provide this if we are willing to set out a clear pathway for an expansion in nuclear provision, including in nuclear innovation that can deliver the low cost, reliable power sources of the future.

Excitingly, Rolls-Royce has also announced plans to develop small modular reactors. Innovative technologies such as these, along with scientific breakthroughs in the research capabilities of nuclear fusion, will allow the government and the industry to secure the UK’s energy supply. Already, the Government has suggested that they will row in behind these proposals, with 20 small modular nuclear reactors in the pipeline.

Fine – but we cannot simply wait for the technologies of the future, important though these are. We need more of the existing large fission reactors now. Without them, we face potential power shortages throughout the next decade, just as our energy supply is expected to double between 2020 and 2040.

This comes at the same time that our previous past failure to invest in more nuclear power replacements is about to be laid bare. Last month, EDF Energy announced that it would close the Dungeness B nuclear plant in Kent seven years earlier than anticipated, amidst fears that the company will be forced to shut down two additional plants in the near future.

Dungeness B had been originally placed offline in 2018 for maintenance, to be restarted to run until 2028 in time for the Hinkley Point C to be finished and capable of providing the necessary energy for the nation to reach Net Zero. The early closure of Dungeness B comes after EDF announced that it would have to shut down Hinkley Point B and Hunterston B by next year instead of 2023.

Additionally, the nuclear power stations in Torness and Heysham 2 could be faced with safety issues which could force their closure well before the originally planned date of 2030.

Our delays to Hinckley C in 2016 nearly turned out to be a dark moment for the UK nuclear industry. With approval finally given, EDF have demonstrated the value chain that nuclear brings to local communities, with well over 50 per cent of the 30,000 jobs created going to the local community.

New nuclear could be the industry which helps to ‘level up’ disadvantaged communities, creating jobs for the future, not just for one generation, but for generations to come well into the next century. The key thing about nuclear industry skills is that they are also highly transferrable: teams learn how to build plants and their skills can then be taken to the next project, reducing its cost in turn.

It isn’t surprising that the government may now turn towards nuclear. What is surprising is that the nuclear industry remains without a seat around the table at COP26. They deserve to be an integral part of the negotiation on how not just the UK, but the rest of the globe can achieve net zero with the aid of nuclear energy.

We cannot afford to ignore the potential that nuclear brings – without it, we risk creating an uncertain future which potentially jeopardises the progress we have made towards a low carbon future.