The following is an entirely fictional, hypothetical email illustrating the problems with UK nuclear strategy.
To: Chief Scientific Adviser, Treasury
cc: CSA, Government
From: CSA, BEIS
Subject: Nuclear electricity generation
It’s good that our senior colleagues have come around to the importance of nuclear electricity generation in a zero carbon 2050 but the problem is they are still in wonderland. I am writing to solicit your help, and Patrick’s, to get them to understand the realities. This memo is prompted by the Great British Nuclear announcement last month and the funding announcement yesterday.
I have five concerns and two proposals. The first concern is scale. The former paper claimed that the 24 GW projected will be 25% of 2050 electricity needs. So total electricity needs will be 96 GW. Nuclear in 2019 was 9.3% of the 103GW of electricity supply and electricity supplied 22% of UK total energy needs. In a carbon zero economy, virtually all energy will be electric so, assuming no growth in energy demand, the total electricity need would be about 500GW and 24 GW from nuclear would be just 4.8% of that. We need at least five times that much and without your help, we will not get it.
My second concern is volatility. We can rejoice that renewables supply 50% of our energy needs but if that is the average of 100% for 183 days and 0% for 182 days, we have a major problem during the 182 days. All my colleagues’ announcements refer to averages and none consider volatility.
So we need far more nuclear power than your colleagues and mine recognise but when they think of nuclear power at all they think of the 20th century monsters like Sizewell, not the 21st century small and advanced reactors which are transforming the industry. Your colleagues have blocked nuclear development for 20 years largely because they did not want to pay for the monsters at £20bn a go. My third concern is that they are still in that mind set and their recognition of small and advanced reactors is lukewarm at best. So we see a PFI finance model enacted in January which dumps huge extra costs on consumers and approves just one power plant per parliament, maybe. Where is the recognition that small and advanced reactors at, maybe, £2bn a go are affordable by the private sector? We should open this up to competition and step away. Yesterday’s funding paper acknowledges modern reactors but keeps all the decisions in government hands. Firms may apply to benevolent government for grants, but no more. This is daft.
My fourth concern is excessive regulation slowing new builds. The Canadian and American approval processes are far quicker than ours and take a more pragmatic approach. Of course safety is important but making the Office for Nuclear Regulation responsible to the Health and Safety people gave it the wrong priority and smaller means safer. The ONR have been talking with international colleagues about harmonisation and are doubtless happy to do so ad infinitum, but are they really likely to sweep away their raison d’être? We do not need 20th C. monster rules for small and advanced 21st C. reactors.
My fifth and last concern is that the body to speed UK nuclear development is a yet to be appointed quango. Simon Bowen is a good man but he has many other jobs and he is only an advisor. The development of the Covid vaccines showed just how critical it was to have a driving force like Kate Bingham. She was removed from the clutches of the DHSC, and its myriad quangos, and given the authority to single-mindedly get the job done. That’s what we want for nuclear, not another quango.
My second proposal is to have a committee of top scientists and engineers to bring reality to the Cabinet on zero carbon 2050 matters and to shield the executive in the para above but not to interfere. Advice should be transparent and open to peer review.
Should we meet with Patrick soon to discuss this?