UK must act on nuclear to meet net-zero aims, review finds

13 January 2023

Investment in new nuclear is "a no-regrets option", according to an independent review of the UK government's approach to reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Its report makes a number of recommendations for the government to meet its Net Zero Strategy, released in October 2021, in which new nuclear plays a significant part.

(Image: BEIS)

Since the publication of the Net Zero Strategy, "the Russian invasion of Ukraine and other global factors have fundamentally changed the economic landscape in the UK, placing huge pressure on households and business through high energy prices and broader inflationary pressures," the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) noted. "Given this changed economic context, the government commissioned a review into its approach to net-zero to better understand the impact of the different ways to deliver its net-zero pathway on the UK public and economy and maximise economic opportunities of the transition."

The BEIS Secretary of State appointed Chris Skidmore MP as review Chair. During the review, he consulted widely with a diverse range of stakeholders, including investors, industry, and experts in different fields, through a series of roundtables and direct meetings, as a well as a public call for evidence which received more than 1800 responses. A report of the review's findings has now been published.

In its Energy Security Strategy, released in April last year, the government set out its ambitions for eight new reactors, plus small modular reactors (SMRs), helping to produce 24 GWe capacity by 2050, representing about 25% of the UK's projected electricity demand. Nuclear's share of energy in the UK is currently about 15%, however almost half of the country's current capacity is due to be retired by 2025 and all but one of its reactors will retire by 2030. The strategy said the government will scope and set up a body, Great British Nuclear (GBN), to develop a pipeline of new nuclear projects and support the UK's nuclear industry.

"Investment in new nuclear is a no-regrets option given expected increase in power demand and retirement of existing plants," the report said. However, "the commitments need more detail to ensure their implementation and we need nuclear deployment targets for 2035 rather than 2050 to capitalise on the opportunities for small modular reactors, advanced modular reactors, fusion technology and nuclear uses outside of the power sector".

The report recommends the government expedites the establishment of GBN in early 2023, ensuring required funding and skills are in place. The government and GBN should then set out a clear roadmap in 2023 for reaching final investment decision on a new nuclear project in the next Parliament. Government should ensure that funding for the project is in place. As part of the roadmap, government should also assess the possibility to increase the current ambitions supporting the development of supply chain to service a fleet of projects. A roadmap should also be developed to set out clear pathways for different nuclear technologies (including SMRs) and the selection process. This, the report says, should consider how to use a programmatic approach to deliver further cost reductions in a competitive environment. The government should also deliver a siting strategy by 2024.

"The main barrier for new nuclear projects is the need for stable, long-term policy and funding commitments given the long timeframes involved in the building of nuclear plants," the review found. It said "a long term programme and roadmaps could further increase investment certainty".

In order to ensure nuclear projects are not unnecessarily delayed, the report recommends government streamline planning and consenting decisions, in line with its commitments set out in the Energy Security Strategy. "Stakeholders stressed the need to overcome bottlenecks in approving new reactor designs through the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), citing resourcing issues at the ONR as well as the option to strengthen international cooperation on reactor design, "which could allow for a reactor design approved in one country to be equally recognised in another," the report said.

The review also highlighted the need for more to be done to develop domestic fuel enrichment capability, including the potential for UK processing facilities for uranium and high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) used in advanced reactors to reduce supply chain risks.

"The Net Zero Review underlines what every reputable and credible analysis has shown - nuclear is an integral part of a future secure, clean power mix," said Nuclear Industry Association Chief Executive Tom Greatrex. "Rather than further procrastination, the government should respond with pace and urgency to establish the promised Great British Nuclear body to deliver the programme of new nuclear capacity we need - both large stations and small modular reactors.

"We support the call for nuclear deployment targets for 2035 rather than 2050, and the need for a fleet of stations to provide Britain with a backbone of clean, reliable and price predictable power to cut the UK's reliance on burning dirty, volatile and insecure gas. If the UK does not act now, our future energy security and the future of our climate will be at stake."

Researched and written by World Nuclear News