Nuclear must be a part of the UK’s low carbon energy mix because renewable sources cannot provide power 24/7
The sun sets behind EDF’s Hinkley Point B (left), and Hinkley Point A (right) nuclear power stations beside the Bristol Channel Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
“Nuclear power remains, prospectively, one of the cheapest low-carbon technologies and can play an important role as part of a cost-effective portfolio of technologies to decarbonise the power sector.” As the Chief Executive of the Nuclear Industry Association, this is something you’d expect me to say, but this is the viewpoint of the Committee on Climate Change in its progress report to Parliament earlier this month.
Recently, Tom Burke wrote on these pages of the “costly gamble” of investing in new nuclear because of rising renewable energy output. I’m afraid that the “costly gamble” will be not investing in new nuclear plants. I’m not arguing against renewables, but it isn’t the answer alone.
The UK needs a mix of low-carbon sources of energy. This must include nuclear. Renewables cannot provide power to the grid 24/7 even though the UK gets as much as 15% of its electricity from these sources. So, one versus the other isn’t the answer – it must be a combination of both. A cost-effective portfolio of technologies, to quote the committee again.
Nuclear can support power to the grid 24/7 and with an ambitious plan for building new nuclear plants, it could provide an even greater proportion of the electricity needed in the UK. It is a fallacy to try to compare renewables with nuclear as both will work in different situations. Nuclear can provide a continuous supply to the electricity grid, while renewables will be reliant on the elements.
The government estimates that by 2025 the UK will need 60GW of new electricity generating capacity and the infrastructure to run it. Of this, 35GW would come from renewables and 25GW would come from other sources, including nuclear power.
The first of the new nuclear plants will be Hinkley Point C in Somerset. However, Burke questioned the ‘strike price’ – the minimum price paid for the electricity generated agreed between EDF Energy who will build the plant and the government. To quote the committee’s report again, it stated specifically on Hinkley that “the agreed strike price therefore offers good value for money and the potential for significant cost savings from a new nuclear programme in the UK”.
All large infrastructure investment projects – be it new nuclear capacity, a new wind farm or solar farm – have a strike price. Burke argued that the Hinkley price of £92.50/MWh was too high, but compare that with the offshore wind farm price of £155/MWh and £120/MWh for a large solar farm.
Over its lifetime of at least 60 years, Hinkley Point C is expected to contribute £2bn to the economy – £100 million of that will directly benefit the local economy through each year of construction.
The UK hasn’t built a new nuclear power station for 20 years and all of the current stations will begin to retire in the next 15 years or so. If we don’t build new ones, that means we could potentially lose a fifth of electricity which is generated on home soil, meaning we’d have to import more. We’d lose a low-carbon source of energy generation which for each kilowatt hour only emits 5g of CO2, compared to 900g from coal-fired. We’d potentially lose a major component of the UK’s science and engineering base too.
But building this new nuclear capacity will mean thousands of jobs. Our own conservative estimates put this at a peak of 32,500 jobs annually, some have put it more towards 100,000 when retiring current plants and simultaneous build of new plants are taken into account.
Upwards of 5,000 apprenticeships will be created across new build, creating much needed jobs and training for young people.
Annual exports from the nuclear industry could increase from £700m a year to up to £1.6bn. We’re already seeing workers from Sellafield going to share their knowledge and experience with other countries, and research and innovation from our universities is also helping other countries in decommissioning and management.
Yes, building a new nuclear power plant takes time. By starting the process now, the UK can increase its secure low carbon electricity generation, in tandem with renewables, ensuring the country continues to decarbonise the UK’s energy supply and contributing to economic growth creating long term, high quality jobs.