Sanjoy Sen is a chemical engineer. He contested Alyn & Deeside in the 2019 general election.
Fears that Jeremy Hunt’s Autumn Statement would see Sizewell C cancelled proved unfounded. The 3.3 giga-watt nuclear mega-project is now set to get under way on the Suffolk coast with a price tag of £20 billion.
Or maybe £30 billion. If the track record of its French design is anything to go by, things might not go exactly to plan.
Nick Clegg famously dismissed nuclear power because it takes a decade to come on-line. That was a decade ago, and we could really do with some extra power right now.
By contrast, today’s Government has big ambitions: eight sign-offs by 2030 with nuclear supplying 25 per cent of our power by 2050. As long as no-one gets cold feet and cancels all that.
Net Zero enthusiasts and climate sceptics alike see a major role for nuclear. But is Sizewell C best way to deliver it? How did we get where we are now? And what can we learn from our French neighbours, the world’s biggest nuclear enthusiasts?
Why nuclear matters
Nuclear isn’t just there to meet 2050 Net Zero targets. It also addresses our growing dependence on imported energy from such gas giants as Qatar. Sizewell C alone should meet seven per cent of current demand at a time when we urgently need new capacity. And, of course, unlike renewables, nuclear reactors deliver maximum output 24/7.
Most of our coal-fired power stations have been closed in the race for emissions reduction – although the survivors are doing good business post-Ukraine. And our gas stations are being edged out by wind.
Meanwhile, our current nuclear fleet is fast depleting. Despite generous life extensions, all but one of the UK’s nine remaining reactors will be retired by 2030. That means Sizewell C will mostly be plugging the gap left behind, not creating extra capacity. To compound matters, our ability to import electricity could be impacted by the challenges facing the French nuclear industry.
Critically, as supply declines, demand is set to soar. Electric vehicles are already with us and home heating could soon start switching over from natural gas to heat pumps. BEIS estimates that UK electricity demand could double to 700 tera-watt hours per year by 2050.
Is Sizewell C our best option – or was it our only option?
Sizewell C is a tweaked version of Hinkley Point C which is (still) under construction. Whilst its third-generation EPR technology is intended to deliver improved efficiency and safety, it hasn’t exactly performed flawlessly to date. Operational plants at Olkiluoto (Finland) and Taishan 1 and 2 (China) have proven problematic so far. Those under construction, Flamanville 3 (France) and our very own Hinkley, continue to incur delays and cost over-runs.
Whilst engineers will recognise the technology, much differs below the surface. Hinkley is 80 per cent French (EDF) and 20 per cent Chinese (CGN). But with EDF financially constrained and relations now strained with Beijing, Sizewell ownership will be 20 per cent EDF, 20 per cent UK Government, with the remainder from infrastructure investors and pension funds.
Contracts for Difference have also been ditched. Not only blamed for Hinkley’s giant cost, they are also held responsible for scaring off other would-be nuclear investors: Hitachi Wylfa (North Wales) and Toshiba Moorside (Cumbria). Instead, Sizewell will use the Regulated Asset Base model which shares costs (and risks) with consumers from day one.
Nuclear new-builds are logistically challenging. Hinkley is currently Europe’s largest construction site with 4,000 incoming workers and heavy traffic, creating pressures in rural Somerset. France once constructed a massive nuclear fleet within a generation, but a failure to train up a skilled engineering workforce makes multiple mega-projects difficult in today’s Britain.
But there could be a faster, cheaper (and more British) way of getting nuclear mega-watts on the grid. Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are intended to be built quickly and efficiently on a production line then delivered to sites across the UK. And there could be lucrative international opportunities, too: Rolls-Royce is targeting exports of £250 billion which would create 40,000 UK jobs.
SMRs represent a once in a generation opportunity for us to get back into nuclear. But we need to really get our skates on and start committing to home-grown technology. Whilst the Government has encouragingly invested millions in SMR development and has earmarked priority sites, the market is hotting up. New concepts are now springing up globally. Most notably, the French, stung by epic EPR over-runs, are now eyeing worldwide SMR opportunities.
How did we end up here?
The UK once led in nuclear. Following Calder Hall (the world’s first commercial reactor) a stream of British-designed powerplants followed, firstly Magnox-type, later AGRs (Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor). But technical problems saw government preference drift towards the American Westinghouse PWR (Pressurised Water Reactor).
Faced with home-grown energy security issues, the Thatcher Government initially envisaged one PWR a year for a decade. In the end, only Sizewell B got built. And even that took over a decade, including a three-year public enquiry.
Post-Chernobyl nuclear concerns, the dash for gas, privatisation, and the drive for renewables have since taken British energy policy in various directions. But just imagine our current energy security had we kept the faith in nuclear.
So, were the French right all along?
Faced with the seventies oil crisis, Pierre Messmer, the French Prime Minister, wasted no time, declaring “we have no oil, but we have ideas”*. Pushed through with little scrutiny or debate, the Messmer Plan aimed for 80 nuclear reactors by 1985, rising to 170 by 2000.
In the end, they settled for mere 56 in 15 years. These typically generate over 70 per cent of France’s power requirements, the highest share in the world. It has also generated profitable exports, supplying electricity to its neighbours (including us) and reactor technology (again, us).
But flaws in the plan are back to haunt the French. Thanks to over-building, expensive plants often run at low load factors, a poor return on heavy investment. And having enjoyed the economies of scale of common designs, they now suffer the curse of common design faults. Earlier this year, almost half of France’s capacity was out of action.
Most worryingly, France has long under-estimated its massive decommissioning bills and can’t kick the can down the road for ever.
Final word goes to the World Nuclear Association: “UK energy policy since the 2008 Energy Act has largely been built around reducing carbon dioxide emissions rather than security of supply or cost.”
It’s time to strike a balance between all three. The lessons are there to be learned. The French went too big on nuclear. We haven’t gone far enough.
*Imagine a British politician delivering the equivalent of Messmer’s full quote:
“In France, we have all kinds of things, we have the best cuisine in the world, a powerful industry, petanque, a glorious history, we also have a privileged geographical location, the Eiffel Tower and angling, yes in France we have all that and much more, yet we lack one thing, one essential thing, oil, oil we have to buy from others, expensive, too expensive. In France, we have no oil, but we have ideas.”