Filling the coal mine

Coal will go down as one of the most significant resources in the UK’s industrial, economic and social history. First mined shortly after Roman times, it powered the industrial revolution and moulded the UK into the world’s economic powerhouse through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century.

However, it is not always widely appreciated that UK coal production actually peaked in 1913 and has been in decline ever since. In 1970, coal generated about two-thirds of all electricity, but in 2015 it generated just over a fifth, and government policy is for coal-fired power stations without carbon limiting technology to close by 2025.

By contrast, civil nuclear power is at the exciting early stages of a resurgence, after many years where there was a combination of a dash for gas and lack of investment in the UK’s energy infrastructure. As the 16GW nuclear new build programme gathers pace, Energy Secretary Amber Rudd MP has said that nuclear is “central to our energy secure future”, whilst noting “unabated coal is simply not sustainable.”

Not sustainable because it is a finite, polluting resource which the developed world is turning its back on. The outcome of international climate talks in Paris last year clearly illustrated this trend and showed how countries are working together to combat the growing effects of climate change and air pollution. Nations are now searching for their perfect energy mix to maintain economic growth and security of supply, at the same time as reducing carbon emissions. 

Unfortunately there is no silver bullet for solving the energy mix question, but for many countries coal is no longer even part of the answer. With 80% of our heating coming from gas in the UK, it will continue to play a significant role alongside renewables and nuclear. Interconnectors, demand management and storage technologies will continue to develop too. It is a complex picture, but one which requires a nuanced and balanced response.

The advantages of renewables are clear but, because of their inherent intermittence and with no large scale and low-carbon industrial storage option likely in the foreseeable future, it means nuclear power remains a necessity because it generates the baseload, low-carbon power required to keep the lights on and our economy flourishing.

The drive for secure, reliable and low-carbon alternatives mean the north will also look to another one of its distinguished industries to help provide the energy for the Northern Powerhouse.

Ever since the end of the Second World War, the nuclear industry has provided the north, particularly the north-west, with high-skill, high-value careers. Sellafield, once a secretive munitions site, deliberately hidden from the Luftwaffe, is now a hive of activity with over 10,000 employees on site working to decommission the vast and complicated site. Significant progress has been made in recent years and Sellafield, once seen as a relic of the sector, is being transformed by new innovations in nuclear decommissioning. Skills and expertise, which are nurturing a specialism that is world renowned, are being exported to Japan and into other international markets.

Next to Sellafield, NuGeneration is finalising its plans to build three new reactors to help power the north. Based in Manchester, the joint venture between Toshiba and ENGIE aims to build 3.8GW of new nuclear capacity in Cumbria on its Moorside site. The project will create tens of thousands of new jobs and supply chain opportunities, not only in the north of England but across the UK. It will also generate sustainable careers when operating, and provide surrounding communities with low-carbon, secure electricity for at least 60 years.

Nuclear reactors are nothing new in the north of England. Calder Hall, Hartlepool and Heysham 1 and 2 have powered the north since 1957 and will continue to until at least 2030 when Heysham 2 is scheduled to shut down. Stations which have provided jobs for over a century and avoided the emissions of millions of tonnes of CO2. The potential of small modular reactors, currently under consideration by the Government, presents even greater manufacturing and supply chain opportunities that will benefit industry in the north of England.

While unabated coal continues to decline in its significance as an energy source, the nuclear sector represents a great opportunity for the north – both in complementing other ways of generating electricity as the distinction between electricity and energy demand is eroded, but also in providing long-term, skilled employment in construction, operation and supplying components for those power stations. Nuclear energy is not just a necessity, it is also an opportunity.

Tom Greatrex is the CEO of Nuclear Industry Association

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