The Observer’s take on Britain’s urgent need to commit to nuclear power | Observer Editorial
For a moment last week, our cash-strapped government seemed ready to scrap a project that many experts say is central to our plans to achieve energy independence and net zero emissions. According to the BBC, the The Treasury had indicated the planned new Sizewell C nuclear reactor was on a list of major construction projects that were being reviewed for possible cancellation. His days could be numbered, it has been suggested.
The threat has since been denied by Number 10. The new atom factory in Suffolk will go ahead, he insisted. For a nation hoping to wean itself off its dependence on fossil fuels and its reliance on imported natural gas, this is good news. The future prosperity of the UK depends on its ability to generate electricity, independently and at low cost, and nuclear energy should play a vital role in this. The problem is that these plans have very shaky foundations, as was revealed last week when uncertainties about Sizewell C first surfaced.
Britain has pledged to close all of its coal-fired power plants by 2024 while those that burn oil and gas are to be eliminated by 2035. After that, a mix of renewables and nuclear power plants should fill that capacity, light and heat our homes, run our factories, and keep our electric trains and cars moving.
For their part, renewable energies are doing well, with wind and solar power plants provide healthy morsels electricity for the UK grid. However, this is not the case for the nuclear component of this energy package. As the country’s fossil fuel power plants are shut down, the reactors are providing less and less electricity to the country. In the 1990s, atomic energy produced 25% of UK electricity. By 2020, that figure had fallen to 16% and it will continue to fall as our aging nuclear plants are shut down.
Of the six reactors currently in operation, five are intended for closing by 2028. An additional new reactor, Point Hinkley Cshould be in operation by then, leaving Britain with two reactors and a limited supply of fossil fuels – in addition to renewable sources – to supply the nation with electricity.
Unless new reactors are built, by 2050 Britain’s nuclear capacity – the proposed cornerstone of the nation’s energy supply for the future – will be a third of what it is today. Solar and wind power will no doubt do their part, but on a freezing, windless winter’s evening, the UK’s lack of central generating capacity will be sorely exposed. Breakdowns will be inevitable.
The Sizewell C reactor project will therefore be welcome, even if the plant alone will be insufficient for the needs of the nation. Britain will need at least half a dozen such reactors to supply the gigawatts of electricity it will depend on for a future that lacks the energy to run our homes and run our factories.
The problem is that a new nuclear plant takes about a decade to build once it has been approved. According to this arithmetic, time is now desperately tight if the UK is to have the numbers it needs to generate the energy the country will need.
Nuclear energy is certainly not free from flaws. Construction costs and waste storage are two clear examples. However, the government has committed the nation to atomic energy. With that done, he is now compelled to act with a speed that will supply the country with enough nuclear power – and keep the light on for the next two decades.