Can the UK build seven nuclear reactors by 2050?
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, soaring energy costs and a rapidly warming planet have propelled nuclear energy projects to the top of the government’s agenda in 2022.
With an energy security strategy to be released this week, plans for new nuclear power plants are back on the table.
In an interview with the Sunday TelegraphBusiness Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has said the UK could see up to seven nuclear power stations built by the middle of the decade, reversing a long nuclear phase-out in recent decades.
In light of the minister’s statements that the UK could generate up to a quarter of its energy needs from nuclear, the new energy strategy should flesh out this statement. But is the UK able to achieve this ambitious goal?
Could the UK produce a quarter of its energy from nuclear?
In theory, he’s already done it – once. According to records, the UK generated 25% of its energy needs from nuclear in 1995, when Sizewell B was commissioned. Generating capacity has steadily declined since then, as nuclear power has gone out of fashion.
The current government has a lot of work to do to reverse the trend. According to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), nuclear generation between October and December 2021 fell to their lowest level since 1982, with lower nuclear power generation contributing to higher coal use in the three-month period. Total electricity generation in 2021 was 310 TWh, of which 46 TWh came from nuclear, down 8.8% from 2020 and the lowest level ever recorded.
The level was affected by the shutdown of certain nuclear power plants for maintenance. However, with Scotland’s 1GW Hunterston B decommissioning this year, the nuclear power deficit could get worse before it gets better.
Where would the new nuclear power plants be located?
A number of sites for nuclear power plants have already been identified. UK Government policy is to locate new nuclear power stations on existing or decommissioned power station sites, as a number of infrastructure elements such as power transmission and disposal or clean-up operations are already in place.
A government card from potential new nuclear sites, published in 2016 by the Department of Energy and Climate Change (now part of BEIS) has highlighted eight sites and includes Hinkley Point in Somerset, home to the ongoing Hinkley Point C project, managed by EDF.
The second leading site is Sizewell in East Anglia. Early plans for Sizewell C, which were linked to Chinese state-backed involvement, are now moving forward after the UK government awarded the program £100million in support in January. A final investment decision on the project is promised by the end of this legislature.
Other sites include Sellafield, Hartlepool, Wylfa, Bradwell and Heysham. Wylfa, in Anglesey, North Wales, has been linked to a number of nuclear projects. Hitachi pulled out of its own nuclear power plant projects in 2019, but three companies have since become interested in developing the site.
One is US nuclear giant Westinghouse, which has revived plans to partner with Bechtel to develop two nuclear reactors at the site. Rolls-Royce has expressed interest in building a modular reactor at Wylfa. Meanwhile, Last Energy, which is backed by Elon Musk, has announced that it is interested in building a nuclear power station in Wales; Wylfa was not mentioned, but would be the favorite for any new program.
Another site with development prospects is Oldbury in the South West of England. Located north of Hinkley Point and south of Bristol on the banks of the River Severn, the site has a clear advantage in that many specialist workers currently at Hinkley would not need to move far, if at all, to build the station. .
Is modular nuclear the answer?
With the high price tag that accompanies major nuclear projects such as Hinkley, are Rolls-Royce’s proposals for modular nuclear the answer?
In March, the government asked the Office for Nuclear Regulation to begin the process of approving designs for Rolls-Royce’s 470 MW modular nuclear power plants. The government has given strong support to modular reactors, which benefit from the participation of a wide range of industry specialists, including Assystem, SNC Lavalin/Atkins, Wood, Arup, Laing O’Rourke, Bam Nuttall and Siemens.
The manufacturing giant has set an ambition in 2020 to bring 16 of these reactors online by 2025 – an ambitious target. Each of the new reactors is expected to cost around £2billion to build, a fraction of Hinkley Point C’s £22billion price.
In 2020, as part of a 10-point energy plan, the government has pledged between £1.5 billion and £2 billion for the modular nuclear programme. It depended on a spending review, which was derailed by COVID-19.
The new energy strategy could renew the government’s commitments in this area. However, as reported by BBC, the Treasury has reservations about the cost of certain measures. Whether or not these are new nuclear projects is unclear, but the new nuclear strategy has reportedly been valued at £13 billion.
Number of jobs needed
Of course, if the political will and funding permit, the final piece of the puzzle will be finding the skills to build new nuclear power plants. In this regard, the UK is training at least a new generation of construction workers to build nuclear power stations at Hinkley.
However, as with any part of the construction industry in the UK, workers and skills are in short supply. Hinkley’s developer EDF Energy admitted this week that it needed 3,000 more workers to complete the massive nuclear power plant. The number of workers had been expected to peak at 5,600, but it is now estimated that 8,500 people will be needed to complete the project.
According to Kwarteng’s comments in the Telegraph, the government will set up a new body to deliver nuclear power plants; ensuring that there is a workforce capable of carrying out the government’s plans will no doubt be high on its list of priorities.