Nuclear innovation must be part of the climate and energy solution

Nuclear is a necessary part of the UK’s energy system. It currently provides about a fifth of UK electricity. Reactors are expensive to build, cheap to operate, then expensive to decommission. So it makes sense to run them for as long as regulators say it is safe to do so. Angela Merkel’s decision to close Germany’s reactors early makes no economic sense.

However, the UK has not opened a new nuclear reactor since 1995. (Labour was, for most of its 13 years in power, anti-nuclear.) So most UK nuclear plants are reaching the end of their design life. If we are to meet the legally-binding carbon budgets of the Climate Change Act, new nuclear will be needed, alongside energy efficiency, renewables and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).

Amber Rudd promised, while Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, that there will be no coal generation without CCS after 2025 – but only if this is consistent with energy security. By this she presumably meant ‘only if there is enough non-coal generation capacity to keep the lights on’.  In the broader energy security sense, ‘where does the fuel come from?’, nuclear clearly is consistent: the uranium comes from friendly countries like Australia and Namibia.

The Coalition Government did well to make progress on new nuclear, which the Conservative Government has continued. Prime Minister May has now given final approval to EDF to construct Hinkley Point C. The reactor EDF will build, the European Pressurised Reactor, is a very complicated design – with additional safety features added to an old design. This complexity increases costs. EDF’s efforts to build such reactors in France and Finland have been beset with difficulties, delays and budget overruns.

Nevertheless, now the decision has been made Hinkley should be supported. So should new build proposals on Angelsey and in Cumbria. These projects will use less complex reactor designs, so will very probably be cheaper to build. But they are again not the most modern reactor designs. So the Government should also promote nuclear innovation.

Last year, the think tank I work for, Weinberg Next Nuclear, called for public investment in nuclear innovation. In his Autumn Statement, George Osborne promised £250 million for nuclear R&D. Earlier this year, the Government launched a competition to develop and demonstrate small modular reactors, which can be made in factories. They are then delivered to sites, where the modules can be combined to provide a power station as large as desired. This will almost certainly cut construction costs.

The Government should go further on nuclear innovation, as Weinberg argued in our April report Next Steps for Nuclear Innovation in the UK. Britain has an enormous legacy from past nuclear activities: spent fuel and the largest plutonium stockpile in the world. Burying it in a very deep – and very expensive – hole has been the favoured option of successive governments. A much better approach would be to use the legacy to provide clean energy. Most of the energy that was contained in the uranium remains unused in spent fuel, so the fuel should be re-used, not thrown away. Plutonium can also be used as fuel. Advanced molten salt and fast reactors could deal with the nuclear legacy as well as providing clean energy. Because safety is built into the design, they will be cheaper to construct than the Hinkley design will be.

Why can’t energy policy, including technological innovation, simply be left to the market? Because there is not a proper carbon price, so the market delivers dirty energy, not clean energy. A carbon price set in the UK alone damages competitiveness. There could in theory be an international carbon price at a respectable level (so unlike the EU Emissions Trading System). But this debate has been going on for 30 years, with little progress. We cannot afford to wait longer. As Christine Lagarde has pointed out, climate change is the greatest economic threat of the twenty-first century.

Chancellor Hammond should therefore continue Osborne’s investment in nuclear innovation. He should reverse one of his predecessor’s mistakes and re-start a UK CCS programme. And he should support innovative renewable energy technologies: tidal lagoons, floating offshore wind farms, bioenergy from seaweed. Innovation, like energy policy generally, must include a diverse portfolio.

The Conservative Party has – as the name suggests – a strong commitment to conservation. It has a proud record on climate change: Margaret Thatcher’s 1989 speech to the Royal Society helped shape the global climate agreement reached three years later in Rio. Theresa May and Greg Clark now have the opportunity to build on this record by publishing, then implementing, a clean industrial strategy.

Stephen Tindale (@STindale) is director of Weinberg Next Nuclear. He is also a consultant to Tidal Lagoon Power.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.