The UK’s nuclear enthusiasts have been on another PR offensive, with announcements of new reactors and possible life extensions to old reactors. All of it denying the reality that nuclear is much too slow and much too expensive to be part of our future energy strategy.
The manoeuvres started with EDF saying that they were looking to extend the lifetimes of their 5 existing nuclear power stations in the UK. This included the suggestion that they might extend the life of the two reactors at Torness in East Lothian until 2030. This cannot possibly be agreed since it was only two years ago that the developing cracks in the reactor cores forced EDF to move the closure date back from 2030 to 2028. Even reaching that date depends on how quickly the cracking gets worse.
Then the UK Government said that they would be building another big reactor and a series of small reactors. Energy Secretary Claire Coutinho called it ‘the biggest expansion in nuclear power for 70 years.’
This time the Government promises to give approval for a new or two reactor every five years from 2030. When Boris Johnson had a spurt of nuclear enthusiasm in 2022 he made the crazy promise to build a new reactor every year.
The plans include proposals to relax planning rules for nuclear reactors, to allow small reactors to be built ‘almost anywhere.’ Of course these plans do not apply to the separate planning system in Scotland and any attempt to impose them would provoke a massive political fight.
Then the Chair of the new body tasked with delivering this expansion, Great British Nuclear, said that perhaps people living next door to a reactor would get money off their electricity bills. A reactor bribe.
Small modular reactors are not particularly small, definitely not cheap and unlikely to be built any time soon. And they are not doing well globally. Oregon company NuScale, poster child of the supposed nuclear renaissance, has just laid off nearly a third of their staff despite $600m of US Government backing. A deal with power companies fell through when the estimated cost of their reactor design increased by 50%. They are also facing a class action from investors sceptical that the company will ever build a single reactor.
On new reactors the latest rumour from Somerset is that the Hinkley Point C reactors are going to be further delayed from the current guesstimate of summer 2027 and will now not be ready until the early 2030s. That’ll be 15 years after they were first supposed to be supplying electricity. Plans for similar reactors at Sizewell C in Suffolk require the UK Government and EDF to raise £20bn of private finance. And now the Government says there will be a third reactor, but are coy on exactly where and when this might be built.
Globally nuclear is in terminal decline. In the last five years more renewable electricity has been generated by just new schemes around the world than by all the world’s nuclear reactors. And twice as much again is expected to be constructed in the next five years, taking renewables output to five times that of nuclear.
Of course the motivation for this burst of co-ordinated PR is clear, the $20bn for Sizewell C hasn’t been raised so the UK Government is desperately trying to give the impression that it’s all go for nuclear in the UK. When it clearly isn’t.
A version of this article appeared in the Scotsman newspaper on 17th January 2024.
Image: FoE Scotland’s nuclear white elephant at Holyrood.