Photo by Anna Barclay/Getty Images
Artillery Row

The need for nuclear

The best time to build a new nuclear plant was ten years ago. The second best time is now

The UK is currently trying to accomplish a difficult three-way balancing act. Whilst the UK has committed to being net zero on its greenhouse gas emissions by 2035, whilst also seeking to ensure greater energy security, this all must be done at affordable prices. Solar and wind tick the emissions and affordability boxes, but only when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining. When discussing energy, two out of three just isn’t enough. Energy security is the third leg of the tripod that keeps the lights on.

Fortunately, there is a solution that could enable the UK to effectively keep these demands in balance. That solution is nuclear power. After a brief delay earlier this month, the government has shown some real promise on capitalising on the huge potential of nuclear power with the official launch of Great British Nuclear.

The more thoughtful amongst us will have received the news of the launch with great relief and optimism. With grant funding totalling up to £157 million and a competition to develop small modular reactors (SMRs), the UK’s flagship nuclear energy programme has the potential to see it take a global lead in developing this clean, safe and long-term energy solution.

Whilst it should be beyond question that the UK must significantly increase the overall share of energy that is generated by nuclear plants if it is to achieve its net zero targets whilst making progress towards energy security, there is regrettably still some prevailing opposition to the power source. This opposition is becoming an increasingly small minority, as nuclear is increasingly seen as the best option on both the left and the right of the political spectrum.

Relying on hope is never a sound risk mitigation strategy

Since the conflict in the Ukraine first shone a stark spotlight onto the extent to which the UK relies on energy imports to keep the lights on, conversations about energy security have become de rigueur. For all the talk of energy security becoming a top priority, the anti-nuclear minority seem to have already collectively forgotten that almost exactly one year ago, the UK was left with no choice other than to pay Belgium over £10,000 per MWh to prevent a blackout, which was a new world record price for electricity. To put this in perspective, as I write this sentence, the spot price of electricity on the National Grid is £57 per MWh. A sustained period of falling energy prices may have put up something of a smokescreen around that record-breaking price, but that does not mean the problem has gone away. Prices are low at the moment because the weather has been cooperating, with a mild winter and a cool summer. Hopefully the weather will continue to cooperate, but relying on hope alone is never a sound risk mitigation strategy. We need to take deliberate and thoughtful action, and Great British Nuclear is aimed at doing just that.

As Britain urgently needs to find an answer to its energy security problem, it’s pleasing to see the government recognise nuclear power as one of our most promising options. Nuclear plants run for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all whilst emitting zero carbon emissions. Granted, building a large nuclear plant historically has not been a quick-turnaround project, and speed is of the essence in reaching our net zero and energy security targets. This is exactly why there is huge potential in SMRs, which are factory-built, come online quicker and require significantly less space than traditional plants. It’s particularly encouraging that SMRs are playing a central role in the Great British Nuclear strategy, with a priority placed on fostering investment and development into the technology, as well as identifying the most promising prospects in this space. SMRs also promise to reduce construction risk and associated cost overruns, which will further aid the mission to attract investment.

In short, the technology is a potential game changer for the sector. If the UK plays its cards right, carefully selecting the right SMR projects and providing solid financial backing, it could become a world leader in nuclear power.

Commercial nuclear reactors have never been responsible for a fatality

The move to fully embrace nuclear power will have also sent an important symbolic message that UK policymakers have not fallen victim to the irrational fears that so often colour perceptions of nuclear power, particularly at a time when some European nations such as Germany are taking action to phase out nuclear power. In the Western world, the energy source has an unmatched safety record, with commercial nuclear reactors having never been responsible for a fatality as per findings by the World Nuclear Association. Small wonder, then, that the World Health Organisation considers nuclear to be by far the safest of all forms of energy production.

Nuclear power’s excellent safety record makes it that much more troubling that this power source appears to be in retreat across Europe. In Germany, for example, where the last of the country’s nuclear plants powered down in April of this year, emissions have grown significantly. Germany, despite its green rhetoric, is in fact Europe’s largest per-capita emitter of carbon as well as the largest overall emitter of carbon. With the launch of Great British Nuclear, Europe’s loss potentially stands to be the UK’s gain, as we may now make real progress on boosting nuclear’s portion of the energy mix whilst parts of the continent regress. This position could well see Britain become an overseas energy exporter, rather than a nation dependent on paying its neighbours over-the-odds prices for energy just to keep the lights on.

Energy security and net zero targets are within reach, and the launch of Great British Nuclear is a promising sign that the government has started getting serious about following through with policy on nuclear power. The old saying is that the best time to plant a tree was ten years ago, and the second-best time is right now. The same applies to Britain’s turn back to nuclear power — better late than never.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover