Renewables account for around 20-25pc of UK electricity production – but are intermittent, subject to weather vagaries. Given all that, despite Kwarteng’s assurances, we can’t be sure outages will be entirely avoided.
What’s clear is that some combination of a higher retail price cap – more expensive bills for households – and/or government bailouts of energy firms is now in the offing. This energy crunch is also most definitely refocusing attention on atomic energy – not as a source of immediate relief, but as part of a solution to achieving broader energy security.
The UK has around 10 operational nuclear power stations, generating almost a fifth of our electricity. Most of them are run by EDF, majority-owned by the French government – yet another reason Macron’s embargo threats are absurd.
Back in 2018, the Government’s National Infrastructure Commission suggested just one more major nuclear facility should be built beyond the new plant EDF is building at Hinkley Point in Somerset – even though all the UK’s existing operational plants are due to be decommissioned by 2035.
This time last year, Hitachi walked away from plans to build a plant in Anglesey, citing the “severe” investment environment created by Covid. This followed Toshiba abandoning plans for a new nuclear facility in Cumbria in 2018. On top of this, when Boris Johnson outlined his 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution in November, he didn’t even mention large-scale nuclear reactors.
While some environmental purists shun atomic energy, the industry’s hugely improved safety record means nuclear can make a major contribution to decarbonisation – “filling the renewables gap when the when the wind doesn’t blow”. Wind power, while accounting for almost a quarter of UK electricity last year, remains expensive, as well as unreliable.
Britain pioneered domestic nuclear energy – when the Calder Hall plant opened in 1956. By the mid-1960s, more nuclear power was generated here than the whole of the rest of the world put together. Since then, we seem to have lost our atomic expertise, relying not just on EDF, but nuclear operators from the US, Japan and elsewhere. This must now change.
Since this energy crisis intensified last week, it has emerged the UK government is in talks with America’s Westinghouse to build the planned large-scale reactor on Anglesey. Any deal, ahead of November’s Cop26 climate change conference, would be presented as part of efforts to reduce the UK’s carbon emissions to net zero by 2050.
Such a plant could become operational in the mid-2030s and generate power for 6m of the UK’s 30m or so homes.
That surely makes sense.
One downside is that a Westinghouse deal could scupper the Welsh government’s plans to use the same Anglesey site to house a small-scale nuclear reactor designed by Rolls-Royce. Such small modular facilities have yet to be approved by Britain’s regulatory authorities. But this looming winter energy scare, even if Kwarteng is right and “the lights stay on”, should surely provide a spur to speed up such approval.
Sites should also be found for more of the Rolls-Royce modular plants – as part of a broader effort to re-establish Britain’s domestic nuclear expertise, as we take vital steps to enhance our energy security.