The first door has closed on what is the most productive fleet of low-carbon power stations in British history. The retirement of Dungeness B nuclear station – one of the UK’s top 10 all-time clean power assets – signals a seminal moment in our country’s clean energy journey.
Do we let our climate leadership slip away, or do we rise to the challenge and invest in new nuclear capacity to secure jobs, cut emissions and guarantee our energy security?
Dungeness B dates from a time when the UK was in the business of building fleets of clean energy powerhouses. From Hinkley Point to Hunterston, this country brought 14 Advanced Gas-Cooled Reactors (AGRs) online in 12 years.
The last station was built in just seven years. Those seven AGR stations, from less than one square mile of land, have saved a staggering 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon emissions, easily more than any other electricity source. Even today, they still produce 20% of the country’s power.
Unfortunately, the AGRs are reaching the end of the road. By March 2024 another four stations will have come offline, and all seven by 2030. Even with Hinkley Point C’s extra 3.2 GW, we would only have 4.4 GW in 2030, against 7.8 GW today.
If you factor in the growing demand for clean power – four times as much by 2050 say the Climate Change Committee for things like electric vehicles and heat pumps – then it’s nowhere near enough.
A ‘nonissue’ some might argue, a gap ‘easily filled’ by new renewable capacity. It’s a nice idea but has is far from the reality of what is possible, or desirable. The loss of five nuclear power stations by 2024 will negate all other clean power capacity contracted to come online until 2025. It means the UK will make no progress on decarbonising its electricity supply for the next four years.
Without new investment, it means 200 million tonnes of extra emissions by 2035, and the loss of skilled jobs and critical national capabilities. As this base of firm nuclear power shrinks, it also means burning more gas to stabilise the grid. By 2025 the government wants to have completely dethroned king coal, but the loss of nuclear means gas will hit a purple patch. Replacing a fossil fuel with another fossil fuel won’t get us to net zero – it is all fossil fuels we need to stop burning for power. It might be hard to stomach given the repeated and consistent warnings of an all too predictable situation, but that’s the reality of where we are at.
So, what is the answer? Build a new nuclear fleet to deliver thousands of good, well-paying jobs, to train a new generation of apprentices and get investment flowing through the supply chain into local communities, all the while cutting emissions and keeping us on track to meet our climate goals. An increase in renewable capacity will go some of the way, but – as we saw repeatedly last winter – variable output means they cannot do it alone.
Put simply, only nuclear can replace nuclear. Nuclear is our one proven, firm, emission-free power source. It is the most powerful and efficient form of energy we have. It is the only low-carbon technology that can produce both clean power and clean heat.
To realise this promise, the government needs to take decisions in the next three years to replace our existing fleet with new capacity. This year, ministers need to produce a new nuclear financing model to cut the cost of capital, making it cheaper and easier to mobilise the money to build new stations.
Next year, they need to create the policy framework to allow the deployment of modular reactors, and they need to support Sizewell C through to Final Investment Decision. By the end of the Parliament, they need to support another large-scale nuclear project to FID as well.
This would restore our nuclear capacity and preserve our world-class nuclear skills base. It is bold and ambitious, but it is not beyond us. We did it in the 1970s and 1980s and we can do it again.
For all that to happen we need action, and that means legislation for a new financing model for nuclear. Doing nothing means forfeiting jobs and watching emissions rise. Building more nuclear stations is the only way we can ensure that doesn’t happen, but the government must act now before it’s too late and the last door has shut.
A few years ago, Tom Greatrex, Chief Executive Officer of the Nuclear Industry Association, spoke to ELN about what the sector expected from the government’s low carbon policies.