The government has today announced plans to build eight new nuclear reactors in the UK, alongside strategies to boost wind, hydrogen, and solar production. These new reactors are intended to improve the UK’s energy self-sufficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as creating thousands of new jobs. In this blog, Professor Francis Livens of the Dalton Nuclear Institute breaks down what these plans mean, and the best routes to meeting them.
- If all of the goals in the new strategy are met, nuclear could provide 20 – 25% of our electricity needs by 2050.
- However, this requires rapid action on the part of policymakers, expediting planning approval and minimising our dependence on global supply chains.
- In parallel, the same urgency has to be given to developing new reactors which will meet our low-carbon energy needs beyond the end of the decade.
As we start to see the shape of government’s energy security plans, it’s clear they require a fundamental change in the way we ‘do nuclear’. We aren’t going to accelerate from one reactor a decade to one a year, and then onwards to 24 GW (about 15 Hinkley Point C reactors) by 2050, without transforming the whole sector. It’s worth unpicking some of what this plan means.
What are we going to build?
At the moment, the only stations planned or under construction in the UK are EdF’s European Pressurised Water Reactors (EPR), at Hinkley and potentially Sizewell, with two reactors at each site. This is a mature design so deployment will be limited by the supply chain – you order specialist nuclear components many years in advance – and workforce availability. Realistically, if we started today, we’d be doing incredibly well to get Sizewell C operating by the end of the decade, so EdF aren’t going to get us beyond half way to our eight reactors.
If we look elsewhere, there is interest from an American consortium in building two Westinghouse AP1000 reactors at Wylfa on Anglesey. This reactor has already been approved by the UK regulators but has a mixed history, with four operating in China, while some American projects are going badly wrong. The design is workable; the challenge is delivering the project.
Finally, there are ‘Small Modular Reactors’ (SMR). These are quite different in conception, with the aim being to build them in kit form in a factory and then assemble them on site. One contender is the Rolls-Royce SMR. Nobody’s built one of these so far, but it is based on well-understood technology (so not too risky), and the design started the regulatory approval process earlier this month. Approval could take up to four years, and construction of the first reactors a further four or five years, so there’s no slack here if we’re to meet the end-of-decade goal. What’s more, a lot depends on how much risk Rolls-Royce might be prepared to take; for example, building factories and manufacturing components in advance of regulatory approval. With a fair wind, we could have a couple of these by 2030.
The biggest risk on the 2030 timescale is therefore not really the technology, but our ability actually to deliver these big, complex projects – a problem that’s not unique to nuclear or the UK, as we see from the American AP1000 projects, London 2012, or HS2. Setting realistic budgets and schedules will be crucial to ensuring this project is delivered in time to meet the goals laid out in the strategy.
What else do we need?
Nuclear energy isn’t just about the reactor. You need a site to build on and, while it’s likely that all the pre-2030 reactors would use existing nuclear sites, it might be necessary to smooth the transfer of land from the current owner (probably the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority) to the new build developer. There are also several other strands of planning and similar activity which would need to be expedited.
Regulatory approval, which is often seen as a blockage, doesn’t have much impact on the programme before 2030. The EPR and AP1000 have already been approved, though acceleration could take a year or so of the SMR timeline. It might have more impact if other designs came into the frame, but those are more likely beyond 2030, or if we want to introduce advanced technologies, such as the use of digital simulations in design.
The biggest risk is around project delivery. The UK has a nuclear supply chain and a skilled nuclear workforce, but these are spread across decommissioning, new nuclear, and defence, all of which present increasing demand. We are also dependent on global supply chains for some critical elements, and as a result will be in competition with other countries which are following similar thought processes to us. There is no point in having everything ready to go, and then finding yourself waiting 3 years for the reactor pressure vessel.
You can mitigate the supply chain and skills risks by giving the sector confidence to invest, but that requires clarity and commitment from government, and – perhaps hardest of all – a seamless approach across multiple government departments. The new strategy provides a solid framework; the challenge is in ensuring its goals are met on time and at cost, and will require a clear and consistent vision from policymakers.
If we do all this, though, we could just about get to 2050 with nuclear providing 20-25% of our electricity, more or less its historical contribution, and compensating for the loss of the ageing fleet of current reactors between now and 2030.
Even if we act urgently up to 2030 and achieve everything in these energy security plans, we will not have solved our energy problems. Energy is not just electricity (about 40% of UK energy use is electricity; the other 60% is largely fossil fuels) and we have a legally binding commitment to Net Zero by 2050, so we have to keep our eyes on that longer term goal. Nuclear has a potential role here too, since High Temperature Gas-cooled Reactors (HTGR) can provide the heat needed to, for example, decarbonise energy intensive processes such as steel making. This was recognised in the 2020 Energy White Paper, but HTGRs are much less mature and, if we don’t push on with them in parallel with the immediate activities, they won’t be ready when we need them.
The IPCC has recently made it clear that the time is now to act on climate change. While new nuclear won’t come online in time to ensure greenhouse gas emissions peak in the next three years, rapid progress in the sector today will ensure we lock in a low-carbon future for the decades ahead.