John Lindberg is a Fellow at Environmental Progress, Technology Officer at Weinberg Next Nuclear, and former political adviser to retired Conservative MSP Sir Jamie McGrigor.
The UK is in a precarious situation. Our ageing fleet of nuclear reactors is coming to the ends of their lives, with the last one predicted to come offline in 2035.
At the same time, the new-build programme is looking more and more farcical, with Hinkley Point C becoming ever more expensive and delayed. As I have previously argued on ConservativeHome, the Hinkley project poses a significant threat to the nuclear future of the UK.
I must admit to being wrong (something too rarely seen in political discourse nowadays). Having previously argued for the rapid commercialisation of the so-called ‘advanced’ reactor concepts and denounced the current fleet, I too fell into the trap that has captured many advocates of nuclear energy. That approach is not going to do anything but further increase the energy independence crisis that is on the cards.
For many decades governments have followed a haphazard approach of ‘trial-and-error’ in regards to nuclear power. Each UK reactor is unique, having been built by different consortia. This has resulted in very limited standardisation of components across British nuclear power stations, which increases costs. This is the ‘British Atomic Disease’ that now permeates into current policies.
With the new build programme seemingly following the same line of thought as its predecessor, the Government is running the risk of committing the same mistakes, at the expense of all of us. The current plans would have six sites with four different reactor types being built, fundamentally limiting the considerable savings that standardisation has to offer.
It is time that the Government fully appreciates the costs of indecision. Of the 15 currently operational reactors in the UK, nine are due to retire in 2023-2024, with the remainder (bar Sizewell B) retiring in 2028-2030. With power production margins already severely diminished, this string of closures will wreak havoc.
Climate change and environmental concerns aside, replacing nuclear power with natural gas will make the UK a hostage of the gas markets, and by extension the countries that dominate this space.
We have to ask ourselves if we are comfortable with countries like Russia and Qatar playing an integral role of the well being of the British economy. History has shown that this kind of reliance, be it the oil crisis of 1973 or Russia frequently starving Eastern Europe of gas, poses a significant threat to our energy security, independence, and economy.
Projects across the world have proven that nuclear power projects can be delivered on time and on budget. The South Koreans are successfully delivering the Barakah project in the UAE, for example. However, EDF’s chosen vendor AREVA has done an excellent job at making nuclear seem highly expensive. Recent increases in cost estimates for Hinkley only reinforces this notion, with the project budget already having ballooned by more than 60 per cent to £20.3 billion.
The Government must reassess its stance. Rather than continuing this haphazard mess, a radically different approach to what we have historically seen in the UK should be adopted. Studies have concluded that the state building, owning and leasing the nuclear power stations to operators would ensure that our energy future is stable.
Furthermore, the Government should consider putting out a tender for all sites, with one company responsible for constructing all new reactors. This would allow for extensive standardisation and learning, which is likely to significantly decrease the costs of the projects. France is a prime example of how this strategy can fundamentally change energy production in a country.
Whilst privatisation has been successful in a number of areas, successes within electricity production have proven elusive. Costs remain high, and long-term investments to secure economic prosperity are non-existent. We privatised our electricity system, only to see significant parts of it being consolidated in the hands of foreign governments.
Whilst energy remains a sidelined area of policy, the crisis bells are tolling. Failing to act, and to act in a coherent manner, is putting the future stability in the UK at risk.