- It is expected that Kwasi Kwarteng, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, will announce Her Majesty’s (HM) Government’s support for the building of 16 miniature nuclear power plants. The current energy crisis has led Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, to urge support for this long-standing scheme. The consortium behind the construction of these reactors was formed in 2017 to push the idea and design of smaller nuclear plants both in the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US). The principal design lead comes from Rolls Royce, which has experience building smaller reactors for Royal Navy attack submarines. These plants produce only 1/7th of the power of the planned Sizewell C station but have a far quicker build time and require less support infrastructure. This means they will provide an ideal stopgap between fossil fuel power stations and future green energy production facilities.
- This scheme has been the long term ambition to provide nuclear power for the UK market, but is only now getting the support of HM Government. The Treasury was opposed to the scheme on the grounds of cost, but given current instability with existing supplies, the £210 million pledged by HM Government is now less of a concern. It is also understood that the Prime Minister is fully in support of the proposals. The new miniature nuclear plants are required because nuclear power generation is expected to decline by half within the next decade, as older nuclear facilities are taken offline.
- The UK is currently suffering from the dual blow of a shortage of wind power and Russia’s geopolitical maneuvering over gas supplies, which is forcing up the cost of electricity. Britain is a world leader in adopting wind power, but this has made the country vulnerable to drops in wind, which has occurred in the last month due to abnormal weather conditions. This problem has been exacerbated by Russia’s attempt to restrict supplies of natural gas to Europe, in order to force through the final approval for the Nordstream II pipeline.
- The UK does have natural gas fields, but in an effort to move away from fossil fuels – the reserves of which, particularly in the North Sea, have been steadily depleted – the country has reduced production. In part, this is also because the methods of extraction, favoured by the companies, which would seek to exploit these resources, are often highly damaging to the environment. Fracking, in particular, is highly disruptive. In particular, the decision to move away from natural gas has led to a short to medium term dependence on foreign gas suppliers, with most of the supply coming from Norway and Qatar. However, Russian actions have forced up the prices of natural gas across the global market, meaning that although the UK has carefully and sensibly avoided dependency on Russian gas supplies, the Kremlin is able to destabilise the broader market and raise costs.
- The temperamental nature of certain renewable energies, such as solar and offshore wind, means that Britain needs either to develop a substantial storage capacity, particularly for natural gas, or create dependable green power sources to meet regular demand. Battery technology is not yet sufficient to provide a solution, and although Green Hydrogen is a possible storage solution it is yet to be upscaled and commercialised. As such, the UK needs to find a medium term solution to combat the unreliability of renewable sources. This is why it makes sense to build miniature nuclear reactors using existing technologies and components. The use of off the shelf designs significantly reduces the cost of the project and makes them far quicker to build.
- Nuclear energy is certainly controversial. For some it provides the ideal solution to the climate crisis, although others consider it a dangerous and damaging technology – not least because of the need to store nuclear waste. However, the UK has an exemplary record on nuclear safety, and the vast majority of nuclear plants around the world have never had a significant accident. Where significant accidents have occurred – Chernobyl and Fukushima – they were a consequence of excessive state secrecy or tsunamis, neither of which afflict the UK. Nuclear power, if properly controlled, is a safe and reliable source of electricity that can complement renewables as Britain transitions away from fossil fuels.
- The signs that HM Government takes UK national energy security seriously are clear. The Financial Times reports that there are plans to force the Chinese state owned company – China General Nuclear Power Group– to sell its 20% share in the planned Sizewell C nuclear plant. Current plans will see HM Government take control of the stake before selling it off to commercial investors. This move will prevent the Chinese regime from owning key parts of UK energy infrastructure; this is an issue of national security and it is right that HM Government should invest to negate this risk to British energy sovereignty.
John Dobson is Policy Relations and Events Coordinator at the Council on Geostrategy
This publication should not be considered in any way to constitute advice. It is for knowledge and educational purposes only. The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council on Geostrategy or the views of its Advisory Council.