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Govt should use nuclear to deliver a ‘levelled-up’ green economy

Sue Ferns · 12 March 2020

Sue Ferns, Prospect senior deputy general secretary, argues that the government can help ensure nuclear power is a vital plank in the transition to net zero.

The new government has staked its credibility on a twin economic platform of levelling-up the regions and clean growth to beat climate change.

With a persistent north/south economic divide, and last year’s warning from the UK Committee on Climate Change (CCC) that we are rapidly running out of time to act on global heating, these are certainly among the most pressing challenges.

But, with rumours that the new Chancellor is about to foreclose on new nuclear, the government risks sabotaging its own agenda from the outset.

New nuclear is widely acknowledged to be a critical component of the clean energy mix needed to meet our net zero emissions goals.

All of the scenarios for limiting global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees outlined by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) involve a substantial increase in nuclear power.

Similarly, modelling by the UK’s National Grid suggests that we may face a stark choice between building new nuclear or missing our climate targets and becoming dependent on imports of power.

Renewables

Renewables like wind and solar are crucial elements of our future energy mix – but they are inherently weather-dependent. Without a backup source of reliable clean power like nuclear, they will threaten the security and affordability of our energy system.

This was starkly illustrated on Wednesday evening when wind power output fell unexpectedly during a period of high demand, leading real time power prices to surge above £2,200/MWh, the highest level in twenty years.

As Prospect has argued before, new nuclear plants would help avoid these kinds of events and ensure a much more stable, and affordable, path to net zero.

Regional factors

Nuclear’s huge contribution to regional economies in the UK is also a big part of why the government needs to get behind further projects.

At present, the nuclear industry supports around 60,000 highly skilled jobs around the UK, the majority of which are outside London and the South East.

A new generation of nuclear power plants would help to sustain and grow the critical, high-productivity nuclear clusters in the South West, East Anglia, and the North West and North Wales, where the nuclear industry is estimated to account for £1 in every £50 of economic activity.

Prospect analysis suggests that a new fleet of reactors could create 33,000 jobs and add at least £6 billion to regional economies.

The expense myth

With such compelling evidence for new nuclear why then is the Chancellor considering abandoning the civil nuclear programme? In large part it is because of the false perception that nuclear is expensive and uncompetitive, a myth that refuses to die.

Perhaps understandably, the high cost of support for Hinkley Point C (HPC) is the source of this myth, but this ignores the fact that the government chose the most expensive funding mechanism for HPC, in defiance of the evidence that much cheaper options existed.

As the National Audit Office has shown, the cost of electricity from HPC could have been cut by more than half if the government had taken a 50% stake in the project, making it competitive with other sources of clean power.

The stubborn insistence on private sector nuclear development, an approach taken by no other country in the world, has kept nuclear costs artificially high.

So, with COP26 looming, and a need to make good on election promises of jobs and growth for the regions, a commitment to new nuclear needs to be at the heart of the government’s infrastructure strategy.

With the right funding mechanism, nuclear offers the chance to create thousands of highly skilled jobs, provide a shot in the arm to ‘left-behind’ regions, and produce an abundance of cheap, clean power. The only question is, will the Chancellor make the smart choice?

This article was first published in Business Green