“Without nuclear power, electricity is more expensive”
In an online interview with Tom Greatex, CEO of the UK’s Nuclear Industry Association (NIA), he explains the country’s nuclear development, which will involve building new nuclear power plants in such a way that by 2050 25% of its electricity will come from nuclear sources. In the opinion of this former Member of Parliament and leader of the shadow cabinet from 2011 to 2015 in energy issues, the reform of the energy market, the capture and storage of carbon, the interconnectors and the recent strategic plan for energy security in the country make it very clear that “nuclear is going to be the bedrock of our future mix to remove our reliance on volatile fossil fuels, and to back up renewables.”
In April we learnt about the British Energy Security Statistic, and the nuclear impulse in the United Kingdom. Generally speaking, what does this plan mean regarding nuclear power?
It brings some clarity to the scale and scope of the ambition for nuclear as part of a future mix. It’s very clear in the strategy that nuclear is going to be the bedrock of our future mix to remove our reliance on volatile fossil fuels, and to back up renewables.
This clarity of ambition is really important, because it means that the industry now has a very clear set of objectives to work on to deliver power that meets the 2050 decarbonisation targets with net-zero targets which we have as a country.
Currently, 14.5% of the country’s electricity is from nuclear sources. What percentage are you seeking to reach in the future?
By 2050 our ambition is to have 24 gigawatts of power, which would be roughly about 25% of our power requirements. The UK will be leading decarbonisation in Europe, and hopefully we will lead with the example and offer opportunities to other countries that will soon open up to similar challenges.
By 2050, it is expected that 25% of the UK’s energy needs will be covered with nuclear power
What does this announcement mean for the NIA and its member companies?
This plan has been very much welcomed by the industry, as it is a much clearer statement of what the government wants to see. To the industry, this means that there’s a greater degree of certainty about the number of nuclear projects that are likely to be. It gives us a much stronger view of the implications of this to the supply chain, and therefore of the amount of opportunities for our companies to participate in the delivery of the clean power that we’re going to need for the future.
The UK’s strategic energy security plan has been very well received by the industry because it offers opportunities and secrurity for nuclear projects
In your interviews you said that approaches to energy must be based on evidence. What is this evidence regarding nuclear?
The evidence is that our existing nuclear fleet has been able to provide a significant proportion of low-carbon power for the last 50-plus years.
The gap that we leave by stopping nuclear is partly filled by burning fossil fuels. The evidence is that, when that is the case, the prices that people are having to pay for electricity are much more volatile than without nuclear. This means that people’s disposable income is lower and inflation is higher, and all the pressures on the economy that come from that.
“We need to make use of all the low-carbon sources to minimise the amount of fossil fuels that we rely on for our power for the future”
The evidence also suggests that it was clear that any part of the world which successfully managed to have a decarbonised power grid over the course of a year has done it with a mixture of renewables and nuclear. We need to make use of all the low-carbon sources to minimise the amount of fossil fuels that we rely on for our power for the future. Then we can provide much more reliable, secure, low-carbon and predictably priced electricity.
In May of this year, following a visit to a British nuclear power plant, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he will be building a new plant every year. What are the implications of these announcements in favour of nuclear technology?
The Prime Minister spoke about being in a position where, rather than taking ten years to get through a process of approval for two reactors as we have done so far, the approval process would be swifter and that would lead to approving a new reactor every year. It doesn’t mean it’s not going to take some time to build these reactors, but if we can make the decision-making process faster the delivery of the reactors will be faster.
The supply chain will be busy, but it also means that companies can invest in people, ensuring that we’ve got the right skills and providing economic input into areas around the country that badly need it, whilst at the same time we’re renewing our fleet of power stations and their energy infrastructure, which we desperately need to do in this country, because what we’ve got now is getting old and needs to be replaced.
What do you think has changed to reach an increase in support for nuclear power and new energy plans with a clear commitment to this technology?
It’s a clear commitment to this technology. I think it’s a dose of reality. The combination of high fossil fuel prices leading to high electricity prices, the volatility of those prices and the geopolitical issues in relation to the gas market in Europe and the impact of Russian gas. At the same time, we had a significant ramp up in demand for power, a relatively poor year for delivery from wind and problems with the interconnector between the UK and France.
All of those things came together to demonstrate and underline the importance of energy security and ensure we have some proportion of our power coming from predictable, firm, low-carbon power, which is nuclear.
“We need to ensure predictable, firm, low-carbon power such as nuclear”
But I think what’s impacted on the public consciousness and therefore the political consciousness is that we’re not going to get there without nuclear being a part of the mix unless you make it something which is prohibitively expensive to the public and unpredictable in its delivery. And that’s what you need to avoid in an energy system that underpins an economy.
Have you calculated the contribution to economic development and increase in jobs that the new construction of nuclear power plants will bring to the United Kingdom?
Yes, we have a live case study at Hinkley at the moment, with two reactors under construction, each 1.6 gigawatts, which is a total of 3.2 gigawatts. This has meant £4 billion has been spent in the supply chain with several companies in that part of the country. This means 14,000 jobs in the region, 22,000 people working on the project throughout the UK, more than 1,000 apprenticeships and probably another 1,000 to come.
Millions of pounds have been invested into education, skills and employment. That shows what is being delivered currently with 3.2 gigawatts. If we're going to have 24 gigawatts, it's eight times that.
“With nuclear development we are going to see billions of pounds invested, thousands of jobs and long-term wealth”
That's regarding large-scale reactors; with small modular reactors, potentially from Rolls Royce, it’s slightly different in that the reactors will be built in a factory and then transported and assembled, but this will create probably 40,000 jobs in the UK and generate £52 billion in economic benefit.
From both the large scale and smaller modular reactor technologies which are likely to be deployed in the UK, we can see billions of pounds of investment, thousands of jobs, the opportunity for people to stay in the areas where they grew up and to have a range of career opportunities, long-term wealth and secure jobs. That's what nuclear brings as an economic input whilst at the same time providing electricity that's secure, reliable and predictable in price.
What perception does British public opinion have of this technology? What about the younger generations?
Every year, the Nuclear Industry Association asks a representative sample of the British public on their views on nuclear being part of the future mix and having to build new nuclear power stations. We've done that for 15-16 years and it's been reasonably consistent. In the United Kingdom, roughly 70% of people either strongly support or tend to support the proposition that new nuclear should be part of the future mix. Around 15% to 20% of people reject that proposition and think nuclear shouldn't be part of the mix. his has been consistent and strong.
“People can now see the real impact of having an overreliance on fossil fuels and the importance of energy security”
But over the last year, we've seen that support has grown to almost 80% of the British public. The reason for that is that people can now see the real impact of having an over reliance on fossil fuels for electricity, not just in terms of climate, but also in terms of their own economic well-being, and because of what’s going on in the world they also have an understanding of the importance of domestic energy security.
As a former Member of Parliament, have you noticed changes in political dynamics in the United Kingdom to facilitate a cleaner energy future?
Yes. In the run up to and since COP26 in Glasgow there’s been a much greater understanding amongst politicians of the imperative to make decisions now to deliver for 2050. There is greater understanding of the economic benefit that can come alongside decarbonisation, because there are projects both in terms of offshore wind and Hinkley, and others that are demonstrating that positive economic impact now .So it’s not a theoretical discussion, it’s rooted in reality.
“Politicians appreciate much more than before is the cost of not facilitating a cleaner and more secure energy future”
I also believe that politicians appreciate much more than before is the cost of not facilitating a cleaner and more secure energy future. It is a very significant cost in economic terms. It can creep up very quickly, as we’ve seen in the last few months, and has very adverse impacts on both household budgets and prevailing economic conditions.
If we get the mix right there is an opportunity to remove that uncertainty, which goes way beyond energy and climate policy and speaks to a much more sustainable economic future. This is something that politicians finally are starting to understand, and it is influencing the policies and strategies that have come from the UK government in recent times.
What led you to take the leap from politics to being CEO of NIA?
The fact that the electorate decided not to re-elect me was the first thing. But during the time I was a politician I was a shadow energy minister. I was very involved in energy policy and I didn't know very much about energy policy.
“The nuclear industry has a very significant and important part to play in decarbonisation, in economic diversification an in providing jobs”
One of the things I very quickly learnt and appreciated was the absolute necessity of nuclear as part of the provision of a reliable and secure energy supply for the future. It was my view that the nuclear industry has a very significant and important part to play in decarbonization, in economic regeneration, in economic diversification and also in providing jobs, growth and economic activity around the country whilst pursuing that decarbonisation agenda. Frankly, I wanted to help and be part of making sure that this was delivered.
Would you like to add anything?
I think it’s a very exciting, significant and important time for nuclear industry, not just in the UK, but globally. I’m very hopeful that the reality, as has happened in the UK, will also influence the way in which other European states look to how they get a secure mix for the future. We have to remember that nuclear is a part of a mix, but it's an integral part. We've found that in the UK, working closely with our counterparts in the renewable industry, has proved to be a successful way of helping to ensure that political debate reflects reality.
"It’s a very exciting, significant and important time for nuclear industry, not just in the UK, but globally"
I'm quite optimistic that, over the next relatively short number of months and years, we will see other countries get to a similar position. It's a win for the industry, but it's also a win for the environment and the economy. Without it, we will miss an opportunity which is very significant for the future of the planet.