From the Daily Telegraph 4 Oct 2020
It's time for the Government to take a stand by backing the Sizewell C reactor
This is a critical time for nuclear power in Britain, a vital clean energy source that is not only going to be central to meeting our Net Zero targets but could form a central plank of rebuilding the economy after the effects of Covid-19. The Government, however, shows little sign of appreciating the urgency or the opportunity.
Plans for the Wylfa nuclear power station in Wales were recently left in tatters after Japanese tech company Hitachi pulled out of the project, a decision that Parliament’s Welsh Affairs Committee called “a blow for Wales”. The stark reality behind this failure is that, after waiting for a funding decision from the UK Government that never arrived, Hitachi simply threw in the towel. The company was risking bankruptcy by pursuing the project and without a solid commitment from the Government it simply became too much of a gamble. “Britain is not a welcoming place for the nuclear industry,” one insider told me.
It is hard to disagree with them, The UK currently has 15 operational reactors, 14 of which are due to close by 2030. In order to replace the energy we will lose when they close, the Government needs to commit to building two new reactors, Sizewell C and Hinkley Point C. Investors in Sizewell C, however, have been waiting months for a decision to go ahead with the project, and may also withdraw if a commitment is not made soon.
Sizewell is “oven-ready” with thousands of experienced builders and engineers ready to develop the site. These skills are not easy to replace if they are lost and there are knock-on benefits to keeping them on hand. Engaging this expertise at Sizewell would almost certainly mean that building a replica site at Moorside, as is currently planned, would be quicker and cheaper due to the success of the standardisation approach.
Currently Britain is largely dependent on fossil fuels, with over 40 per cent of our needs being met by gas. Nuclear chugs along reliably at around 20 per cent. On a good day wind makes up a sizeable proportion of what is left, but when it doesn’t blow we have to import coal to fill the gap. This difference can be significant. During the recent heatwave, wind output fell from 30 per cent to just 4 per cent. The reliance on coal outsources the cost to the environment and to people living near coal plants who are vulnerable to health impacts including including respiratory and heart issues. That is even before we take into account rising greenhouse gas emissions.
Britain is at a crossroads. If we do not develop new nuclear power capacity now, our emissions will go up. Even if we commit to building more renewables, their intermittency severely limits how deeply we can decarbonise without sacrificing reliability. This is what California recently experienced with blackouts due to issues with its energy grid.
Then there is the issue of land use. Renewables require vast amounts of land, which puts building large wind and solar farms at odds with efforts to increase rewilding measures to restore our precious countryside.
We are fortunate in Britain that we have never had to live with the risk of not being able to warm our homes in the winter, or keep medical equipment functioning in our hospitals. Do we really want to risk this security? We know that we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels, but we need to accept that we need a reliable, grid-scale replacement for them, which only nuclear can offer.
It is essential that leadership is now taken regarding the future of nuclear in Britain. Besides investing in advanced nuclear, we also need to be building new nuclear now. Without it we will have little hope of meeting our emissions targets and we will have missed a golden opportunity to spur on the economic recovery from Covid. Wylfa would have transformed the North Wales economy, and benefited young people by offering them highly skilled jobs. Now Sizewell C hangs in the balance, along with the 10,000 jobs it offers. The stakes are high.
Back in July, Boris Johnson said “we believe that nuclear power is a significant potential contributor to our Net Zero ambitions”. But beliefs alone are not enough: we need action. Without committing to build Sizewell C, and additional new nuclear, Britain will be left behind. France produces 70 per cent of its electricity from nuclear and even China has announced ambitious net zero plans which include heavy investment in nuclear.
The Prime Minister needs to face the truth: that nuclear power saves lives, will bring down emissions, and can help Britain to build back better.
Zion Lights is director of Environmental Progress UK and a former spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion.