Reflections on the important role of new nuclear build as part of a balanced decarbonised energy mix

06 December 2018

As we approach the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) Conference today, it is a good time to reflect on the role of Nuclear in our future energy mix in the UK. 

Much of the debate around decarbonisation has focussed too much on renewables versus alternatives. The focus should be on low carbon solutions full stop. Setting renewable energy targets misses the point – targets should be about carbon. And if we are to achieve our legally binding carbon targets as a country, then new nuclear build capacity is an essential part of the energy mix as the current nuclear generation fleet comes to the end of its life over the next 10-15 years.

Clearly large scale renewables, micro-generation and storage also all play an important part in this move to decarbonisation – as well as demand side management and energy efficiency (I know that the NIA agrees with this too), but nuclear needs to continue to also play a key role in a low-carbon baseload for many decades to come at least. Alongside increased storage, it is important that we have a reliable low-carbon source of electricity even when it isn’t windy or sunny! The intermittent use renewables is a challenge for all electricity systems and many of the current solutions have environmental impacts, for example the carbon in gas and the challenges around Lithium extraction in batteries. Whilst battery technology and demand side management technologies have been improving rapidly, we could not solely rely on these for the whole of the UK’s electricity demand for potentially multiple days in a row.

A direct comparison between the very encouraging falling CfD strike prices for offshore wind and the CfD strike prices for Nuclear cannot be compared on a like-for-like basis; the intermittent nature of wind and solar generation requires a lot more installed capacity to meet demand. A recent study by MIT analysed this very thoroughly for various territories around the globe and concluded that a proportion of nuclear generation, alongside renewables, is a cost effective route to decarbonisation in the UK.

It is also highly likely that we will see the costs of new nuclear fall as the UK and its supply chain gets into successive builds. There is a ‘fleet effect’ benefit through supply chain learning and re-utilisation of investments even if the reactor technologies themselves vary from site to site.

Plus of course, the wholesale cost and reliability of availability is not the only consideration in new nuclear. The broader socio-economic benefits of jobs created and spend in the UK supply-chain is significant, and in particular it is significant in regions of the country where inward investment is sorely needed.

There is of course the ‘elephant in the room’ of the radioactive waste and decommissioning costs. But an ‘elephant in the room’ is defined as a problem that no-one talks about, whereas the nuclear industry does quite the opposite on both of these topics: it proactively and safely deals with its waste (rather than just letting it escape into and the atmosphere as our fossil-powered generation has always done), and all new nuclear projects are required to establish and fund in advance a plan and programme for their future decommissioning.

There is an important lesson to be learned from the very sad demise of NuGen, of the difficulties in financing large new nuclear projects, but that does not detract from the need for the low-carbon baseload generation that they provide as part of a balanced energy mix alongside renewables, nor from the good work that the team at NuGen were doing for the nuclear industry and for the local economy in Cumbria. I am sure that we all hope that a productive future of some sort can be resurrected for the Moorside site and its local Cumbrian supply chain and people, as well as the other planned developments at Wylfa Newydd, Sizewell C, Bradwell B and Oldbury.

Finally it is worth noting that our decarbonisation targets are focussed on energy emissions, not specifically electricity. Given the challenges in decarbonising heat, it makes sense to speed up the pace of decarbonising electricity to ensure pathway to 2050 can be achieved. In this scenario, we need to be investing more in all low forms of generation including renewables and nuclear.

Steve Randle | Consulting Leader
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