Dr Stephen Haraldsen is a Research Fellow at the University of Central Lancashire and a Cumbria County Councillor. He stood as the Conservative candidate for Copeland in the 2015 General Election.
New nuclear developments in the UK are struggling. From the initial eleven sites suggested in 2008, to the nine later designated as suitable to be delivered by 2025, only one is now being built.
In the past few weeks and months both the Moorside site in Cumbria, and the Wylfa site on Anglesey in North Wales, have had their Japanese backers pull out or halt development.
The major obstacle for these massive nuclear developments is finding the significant amount of investment needed. The Hinkley Point C site is only progressing because George Osborne, when Chancellor, agreed to a 35-year guaranteed minimum price for the electricity produced.
However, while very large reactors are struggling owing to their huge construction costs, there is another option which Government is keen to pursue: Small, or ‘Advanced’, Modular Reactors.
These smaller, modular reactors are intended to use off-the-shelf components to provide much smaller amounts of electrical power and heat for industrial processes. Their smaller size should, in theory, enable them to be more flexibly located nearer to the demand for their output, minimising the need for expensive long-distance grid connections and the associated transport losses.
Through the Industrial Strategy and Nuclear Sector Deal, the Government is putting £44 million into developing designs. There is a significant amount of debate as to whether these modular reactors can achieve a competitive cost compared to other energy sources, and I will leave that to the more economically- and technically-minded. But there is another issue which is significant, which is that at the moment there is no clarity about where they will go, or how the process of planning permission will be handled.
The large gigawatt-scale reactors are designated by Government as a ‘Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project’, and from 2008 there was a Strategic Siting Assessment where sites nominated by landowners and operators were assessed. All but two of the nominated sites were at or adjacent to existing nuclear sites. The two that were further away, Braystones and Kirksanton (both in Cumbria) were not shortlisted as deliverable by 2025 after significant local opposition.
To make small reactors viable in the long-term, they will need to be located near to the demand for the electricity and heat, and in the short-term prototypes will need to be developed somewhere. Existing nuclear sites are generally located in sparsely-populated areas, and while that will be advantageous for initial developments, it may be economically problematic if these are to be deployed widely.
Therefore the issues of siting and planning permission currently on the desk of Richard Harrington, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, are important.
In this difficult time for the British nuclear industry it may be tempting to centralise the whole process, in order to give investors more confidence and reduce uncertainty for wider deployments. I want to appeal to the Minister and department to resist that urge.
Democracy and pragmatism
The sites and planning environment are there already for small reactor development. There are no shortage of nuclear sites in the UK that could play host to the development of new reactor designs, and the National Planning Policy framework already has a favourable environment for low-carbon electricity and heat generation.
The British Government has last year distinguished between sites with single reactors above 1GW and those sites with reactors below 1GW by modifying the National Policy Statement for Nuclear to be only about the large-reactor sites. I hope this is a signal that the small reactors will not be subject to determination by the Secretary of State nationally, but by councils locally.
So, in the short term there is simply no need to centralise. Public opinion towards nuclear developments at existing sites is positive: see the local support for, and then disappointment with, the Moorside and Wylfa developments.
In a highly-connected, globalised economy, places are competing with places across the world for investment and prosperity.
Some areas may have specialisms in financial and professional services, like the City of London, and others may have a nuclear specialism. We should be allowing those areas to determine what they want for their future, and as far as reasonably possible allow their locally elected representatives the freedom and power to create the local conditions to achieve their goals.
For low-carbon generation, the NPPF has this to say regarding local planning (p44):
“151. To help increase the use and supply of renewable and low carbon energy and heat, plans should: a) provide a positive strategy for energy from these sources, that maximises the potential for suitable development, while ensuring that adverse impacts are addressed satisfactorily (including cumulative landscape and visual impacts); b) consider identifying suitable areas for renewable and low carbon energy sources, and supporting infrastructure, where this would help secure their development; and c) identify opportunities for development to draw its energy supply from decentralised, renewable or low carbon energy supply systems and for colocating potential heat customers and suppliers.”
Those areas which seek to pursue the research and development in advanced reactors should be looking now to their Local Plan, development policies and the site allocations to make a statement about their willingness to host such facilities.
Rather than wait for government to decide, send a signal now to developers that areas like West Cumbria and Anglesey want to host this new generation of nuclear sites. In the wake of the disappointing developments in Cumbria and North Wales, Copeland Borough Council and Isle of Anglesey County Council should designating land as ‘advanced nuclear development zones’ and state clearly in the Local Plan their support for attracting and developing these new technologies.
Indeed, the timing is good, as many local plans are currently being updated, and have to be at a minimum every five years (although there is nothing stopping councils taking account of changing circumstances and altering their Local Plan at any time).
The news for these communities, the industry, and the Government has been challenging recently. Government is putting the money in to advanced reactor research, and while these will never match the jobs and investment that would have come from the larger nuclear sites, local areas like Copeland and Anglesey should seize this opportunity now to send a clear message to government and the industry that they are nuclear communities, and despite the difficulties they are open for business.