We are in the midst of a zero-carbon energy transition globally and Britain has shown leadership with its strategy that sets out policies and proposals for decarbonising all sectors of the UK economy to meet the net zero target by 2050. The UK Government is putting nuclear at the centre of its strategy to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and to achieve energy security, alongside renewables. It states on the government website” We’re embracing the safe, clean, affordable new generation of nuclear reactors, taking the UK back to pre-eminence in a field where we once led the world.” One think tank of energy experts, the Claverton Energy Research Group, thinks the UK government’s decision July 20th to give the go-ahead to building a new nuclear plant, known as Sizewell C, could be a costly mistake and opposes the new nuclear development on purely economic grounds.
One member of the group, Professor Mark Barratt of University College London emphasises that “nuclear power is more expensive and slower to build than renewables, particularly offshore wind.” Importantly, Professor Barratt goes on to state that 7 GW of wind will generate about 40% more electricity than the nuclear plant currently under construction at Hinkley Point “at about 30-50% of the cost per kWh and will be built in half the time.”
The latest research by members of the group shows that so-called “baseload generators” such as nuclear power plants are not needed in an all-renewable future and their use will almost certainly increase overall costs to consumers. The ‘baseload argument’, which can be summarised as the need for a minimum consistent level of electricity supply to the grid, has long been used as an argument in favour of nuclear power. However, proponents of renewable energy argue that this argument is not only technically out of date, but also that continued development of nuclear power will add substantially to household energy bills and drive even more people into fuel poverty.
On the last point, Dr. Keith Baker at Glasgow Caledonia University, and a long-time member of the Claverton Energy Group says, “Building new nuclear plants will only exacerbate fuel poverty. Any talk of a nuclear renaissance, particularly when spiralling energy prices are pushing more and more households into fuel poverty, smacks of desperation from an industry that should already be consigned to the dustbin of history. It’s a simple case of buy now, pay now, pay even more later.”
Speaking beyond simple economic arguments, Dr. Paul Dorfman of the group stresses some of the risks “The central message, repeated again and again, that a new generation of nuclear will be clean and safe is a fiction. The reality is nuclear is an extremely costly and inflexible technology with the potential to cause significant harm. Not forgetting that coastal nuclear is at ramping risk from climate-driven sea-level rise, storm surge and flooding – with the nuclear industry and regulatory mitigation efforts becoming increasingly obsolete.”
David Andrews, Chair of the Claverton Energy group sums up the concerns: “Sizewell C is an ill-advised investment because when analysed proven renewables –wind, solar, storage and low carbon wind-drought back-up . . . are much cheaper and more reliable than nuclear energy and can be built in about 1/3 the time”.
As we see with the recent record-breaking temperatures, the fires, the floods, the bizarre twists and turns of our environment, something must be done urgently – but prudently. Much more needs to be done in the UK to address energy demand. Much more needs to be done to decarbonise. With the track record on building the new generation of nuclear plants – look at what happened in Finland and Flamanville in France in terms of costs and timing – the safest course certainly seems to be the one the Claverton group is advising. Now the challenge will be how to make that a reality.