Status of nuclear power in the UK
In 2020, 16% of the UK’s electricity came from nuclear power plants. In 2019, nuclear supplied 17% of the country’s electricity. This energy comes from 13 nuclear reactors at six plants, though at any time some of these reactors are not operating because of planned or unplanned shutdowns.
The amount of the UK’s electricity that comes from nuclear has declined since the 1990s. In the late 1990s nuclear power generated approximately 25% of the UK’s electricity. Since that time, several plants have been permanently shut down and others need to be closed for maintenance more often because they are old.
New nuclear power stations
Nuclear power capacity in the UK is likely to decline in the short to medium term, as the capacity of reactors scheduled for decommissioning soon is greater than that of approved new reactors. Almost half of the UK’s current nuclear capacity is due to be decommission by 2025 and only one new plant, Hinkley Point C, is currently under construction. If no other new nuclear power stations are built, the UK’s nuclear capacity in 2050 will be a third of what it is today.
The new plant under construction at Hinkley is privately built and owned, however the Government is ensuring the owner’s return through what is known as “contracts for difference”. In these schemes, the Government sets a “strike price” which is valid for 35 years. If the market price of electricity falls below the strike price, the Government makes up the difference. If the price is above it, the owners, EDF Energy and China General Nuclear Power, must pay back the difference. Previous nuclear power stations have all been built with some level of public subsidy.
There is disagreement about whether or not the Hinkley Point C project represents good value for money for consumers. Some commentators have argued that the strike price agreed for power generated by Hinkley Point C is too high, particularly when compared with the most recent strike price for offshore wind. However, energy prices have risen recently and the market rate for electricity is currently more than the strike price agreed for Hinkley Point C.
The developers of Hinkley Point C expect it to be completed in 2026 and to provide energy equivalent to approximately 7% of the country’s current electricity needs.
The Government has said that new nuclear power is an important part of meeting its carbon reduction target. While the Government emphasises its commitment to renewable energy generation, it argues that ensuring the energy system is reliable means “intermittent renewables need to be complemented by technologies which provide power, or reduce demand, when the wind is not blowing, or the sun does not shine”. One of these technologies, says the Government, is nuclear power. “Delivering new and advanced nuclear power” was the third of ten points listed in the Government’s Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution, published in November 2020 and reiterated in the Government’s December 2020 energy white paper. The white paper listed offshore wind, nuclear power and hydrogen as key to decarbonising the country’s energy system.
In addition to the new power station at Hinkley Point, which is already under construction, the Government has identified several sites for possible new nuclear power stations. These are: Oldbury, Sellafield, Sizewell, Wylfa, Bradwell, Hartlepool and Heysham. Of these, Hartlepool and Heysham are the only ones not the subject of existing proposals. The Sizewell project is the most advanced; the Government is currently in discussions with EDF about its financing.
The Government has said that it aims to give the final go-ahead to a new nuclear plant by the end of the current parliament (at the latest May 2024). The energy white paper said the Government was “aiming to bring at least one large-scale nuclear project to the point of final investment decision by the end of this parliament, subject to clear value for money and all relevant approvals”.
Funding of new nuclear
Some companies have withdrawn from or suspended proposed projects. For example, in 2020, Hitachi cancelled a proposed new plant at Wylfa in Wales. It explained it had not been able to reach an agreement with the Government about funding. The Government said it had offered Hitachi a “significant and generous package of potential support”.
In October 2021, the Government announced that it would put forward new legislation to introduce a new financing model for new nuclear plants. The Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill would allow the regulated asset base (RAB) financing model to be used to fund new nuclear. The RAB model, which has been used to finance water, gas and electricity infrastructure, aims to bring down the cost of financing by sharing the investment risk with consumers. An economic regulator is given the power to levy a charge on consumers, the proceeds of which go towards financing the new infrastructure. For new nuclear plants, customers will have an extra charge added to their energy bills. This will finance the construction of new plants.
The Government believes the RAB model will reduce the overall cost to consumers of new nuclear power. This is because the extra money available during construction means project owners can avoid taking out loans which accumulate interest, the costs of which would eventually need to be recouped on energy prices. The Government states that “overall, the lower cost of financing the project is expected to lead to savings for consumers of at least £30 billion on each project”. This is compared to an estimate of what consumers would pay if the projects were funded through contracts for difference.
In the second reading debate of the Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill in the House of Commons, Dr Alan Whitehead, Shadow Minister for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, said the opposition supported using the RAB model to finance new nuclear. However, he argued that “there are still many questions to be answered” about protections for consumers in the model, particularly if the project takes longer or is more expensive than expected.
The Government has committed funding to advance its nuclear goals. In the Autumn Budget and Spending Review 2021 the Government said it would invest “£1.7bn to enable a final investment decision for a large-scale nuclear project in this Parliament”. In addition, the Government announced £120m for a new Future Nuclear Enabling Fund, which aims to address barriers to entering the sector.
The Government has also committed to investing in “advanced nuclear generation”. The Budget and Spending Review announced £385m for advanced nuclear research and development. The main aims of this funding are to develop a small modular reactor (SMR) and an advanced modular reactor (AMR) demonstrator. SMRs use similar reactors to those used in current nuclear power stations, but on a smaller scale. They are modular because their components can be manufactured in factories then assembled on site. AMRs are reactors which use novel cooling systems or fuels. The Government also aims for the country to have a commercially viable nuclear fusion power plant by 2040.
Nuclear power and the Government’s carbon reduction goals
In 2019, Parliament amended the Climate Change Act 2008 (the 2008 act) so that the Government is required to reduce the UK’s net greenhouse gas emissions by 100% relative to 1990 levels by 2050. The 2008 act also established the Climate Change Committee (CCC), an independent body that advises the Government on meeting its carbon reduction targets.
In December 2020, the CCC found that nuclear power will be needed to complement energy from renewables and other low-carbon generation if the UK is to meet its net zero goal by 2050 and meet the sixth carbon budget covering the period 2033–2037. This carbon budget requires that electricity generation is decarbonised by 2035. It also requires a rise in demand for electricity, as people replace other sources of energy with electricity (for example, by switching from petrol to electric vehicles and gas boilers to electric heating). The CCC estimates that in its “balanced” pathway to meet these goals, nuclear capacity of 10GW will be needed. This would require new nuclear power plants in addition to Hinkley Point C.
The CCC also presented four other scenarios, three of which require half the nuclear capacity of the “balanced” pathway. These scenarios outline situations in which engagement is widespread, innovation is widespread, both or neither. In the more “optimistic” scenarios, in which engagement and/or innovation are widespread, variable renewables, gas with carbon capture and storage and hydrogen play a greater role in electricity generation. As a result, the required nuclear generation capacity would be 5GW.
In its 2018 National Infrastructure Report, the National Infrastructure Commission argued that investment in renewables could negate the need for new nuclear beyond Hinkley Point C. The commission said that the cost of meeting electricity demand between 2030 and 2050 was “broadly comparable” between investing heavily in renewables or investing heavily in nuclear power stations. It assumed that the cost of renewables would continue to fall, in line with recent trends, but that the cost of nuclear power stations will stay the same, also in line with recent data. It concluded that “an electricity system with no further nuclear plants after Hinkley Point C is likely to be cost comparable with a system which accommodates a new fleet of nuclear reactors”.
Others have also argued that new nuclear reactors are unnecessary. Paul Dorfman, an associate fellow at Sussex University’s Science Policy Research Unit and member of the anti-nuclear think tank Nuclear Consulting Group, has also highlighted the fact that nuclear power is getting more expensive while renewables are getting cheaper. He argued that investing in nuclear power diverts funds and political attention away from other low-carbon interventions, and that ““nuclear just can’t compete with the technological, economic, safety and security advantages of the renewable evolution”.
The UK currently relies on imports for some of its energy supplies, particularly of gas. Approximately half of the UK’s gas is imported. While much of this gas is used directly, some is used to generate electricity. In 2020, 36% of the UK’s electricity was generated using gas, down from 41% in 2019. In 2020, approximately 7% of the country’s electricity was imported via interconnectors with the continent.
The Government has not stated that it intends to reduce the level of gas imports. The Government has emphasised that the UK has a diversity of sources for gas, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy found in 2017 that “UK gas supply infrastructure is resilient to all but the most extreme and unlikely combinations of severe infrastructure and supply shocks”. However, reliance on gas imports means that the UK is subject to disruptions in global trade.
It is the Government’s intention to reduce the role of gas in the UK’s energy supply to meet carbon emission reduction goals. A shift away from oil and gas and towards electricity will mean a shift away from global markets and towards domestic production and regional trade, as it is costly and difficult to transmit electricity across continents.
In a recent statement on the UK’s gas market, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Kwasi Kwarteng, reiterated the Government’s commitment to new nuclear capacity. Mr Kwarteng stated that even though the UK’s gas supplies are secure, new sources of energy are required to reduce dependence on fossil fuels:
Our security of gas supply is robust, but it is the case that the UK is still too reliant on fossil fuels. Our exposure to volatile global gas prices underscores the importance of our plan to build a strong, home-grown renewable energy sector to strengthen our energy security into the future. Thanks to the steps we have taken as a Government, renewable energy sources have quadrupled in gigawatts of capacity since 2010—far more than quadrupled, in fact—but there is still clearly a lot more we can do in this area. That is why we have committed to approve at least one large-scale new nuclear project in the next few years and are backing the next generation of advanced nuclear technology with £385 million, helping to attract billions of pounds in private capital and to create tens of thousands of jobs.
Nuclear waste disposal
Nuclear power plants produce radioactive waste, some of which remains dangerous to human health for thousands of years. Nuclear waste is classed as either low-level or high-level, depending on how radioactive it is.
The issue of long-term disposal of nuclear waste is unresolved in the UK. At present, nuclear waste is stored in interim facilities. However, these facilities are not designed for the permanent storage of high-level radioactive waste.
The Government’s preferred solution for long-term storage of high-level radioactive waste is “geological disposal”, at what is known as a deep geological facility. This involves placing the radioactive waste deep in a rock formation. The aim is that the rock formation would function as a barrier, preventing radioactivity from escaping and isolating the waste from changes at the surface. Geological disposal is the preferred solution in many countries including the USA, France, Sweden and Finland.
However, the Government has so far not found a community willing to host a deep geological facility. The Government has said that it will not impose the facility on any community, and the decision must be made with the community’s consent.
The disposal of nuclear waste is a devolved matter. The Welsh Government is also pursuing geological disposal. The Scottish Government’s policy is that high-level radioactive waste should be in facilities near to the surface. The Northern Ireland Executive jointly issued the papers on geological disposal with the UK Government.
Nuclear power plants can be used to develop materials for nuclear weapons as well as to produce energy. India and Pakistan, and possibly Israel, became nuclear powers after originally seeking nuclear technology for research or to develop nuclear power. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) aims to verify that countries are abiding by their nuclear non-proliferation commitments and not diverting materials to be used for weapons. However, some countries, such as Iran and North Korea, have set up facilities to process materials for nuclear weapons and not declared these to the IAEA. In addition, terrorist organisations have declared their intention to obtain the materials necessary for nuclear weapons.
Accidents can result in dangerous radioactive waste escaping from the plant. This can happen because of flawed design and human error, as was the case at Chernobyl in 1986, or because of a natural disaster, as was the case at Fukushima in 2011. Radioactivity released from the Chernobyl plant was ten times that of the Fukushima plant, because of the nature of the incident and because the plant did not have a containment structure.
The Chernobyl disaster resulted in deaths and serious health effects, while the Fukushima disaster’s effect was more limited. There is significant dispute over the number of deaths and amount of ill health that have resulted from the Chernobyl explosion. The initial explosion killed two people, and a further 29 people involved in the clean-up died in the following months. However, the International Atomic Energy Agency predicts that up to 4,000 people could eventually die of radiation exposure from the incident, and some researchers contend there are many more far-ranging effects. In contrast, no one died directly as a result of the Fukushima incident. There has been one death and four further illnesses that the Japanese Government attributes to radiation poisoning from the incident.
This article was updated on 1 December 2021 to take into account developments since October 2021 ahead of debate in the House of Lords.
Cover image by Markus Distelrath from Pixabay.