Britain’s nuclear railway

January 15th, 2013

Posted by Mark Halper

Training for a nuclear future. National Rail CEO David Higgins commits to nuclear power to drive Britain’s railway electrification.

The company that operates the railway infrastructure in England, Scotland and Wales is turning to nuclear power to keep the trains running and help take CO2 out of its energy footprint.

No, Network Rail is not outfitting locomotives with small nuclear reactors as propulsion engines.

Rather, the privately held, government backed company has signed a 10-year deal with utility EDF to assure a supply of low carbon – nuclear that is – electricity that will allow Network Rail to expand the electrification of Britain’s railway lines.

“EDF Energy will ensure 100% of the electricity it supplies to Network Rail will be matched by low carbon energy generated from its eight nuclear power stations,” the companies said in a joint press release that appeared on both the Network Rail and EDF websites.

Today, many of the UK’s trains run on CO2-emitting diesel fuel. Only 55 percent of trains are electric, and Network Rail wants that to expand to 75 percent by 2020. By then, it hopes to electrify 54 percent of the  lines – an additional 2,000 miles of track fed by overhead high voltage cable and “third rails” – up from the current 40 percent.


Network Rail is already the single biggest consumer of electricity in Britain. Since the country faces an uncertain energy future, the rail operator will need to guarantee a steady source of power.

Thus, the 10-year deal with EDF.

The contract is unusual not only because of the nuclear commitment, but also because it allows Network Rail to purchase electricity up to 10 years ahead of time.

“EDF Energy is offering Network Rail the unique capability to purchase their electricity requirements up to 10 years in advance, helping to deliver greater certainty over costs and significantly reduce exposure to short term, volatile energy prices,” the joint release states.

EDF, a French company, operates 8 nuclear power stations in Britain and hopes to build four more, pending planning permission and financing.


“Rail is already the greenest form of public transport and this partnership with EDF Energy will help us make it greener still,” said David Higgins, Network Rail CEO.  He described the supply arrangement as “an innovative contract for low-carbon energy.”

Likewise, EDF Energy CEO Vincent de Rivaz noted that,””Rail is already one of the least carbon intensive ways to travel and the huge investment in electrification will be backed by a stable and affordable supply of low carbon energy. The deal places nuclear energy at the heart of the UK’s infrastructure for the next 10 years and serves to underline that nuclear power is part of everyday life in Britain.”

Network Rail’s commitment to nuclear power is just the sort of boost from industry that nuclear companies need to help establish nuclear as a clean, CO2-free energy source for a sustainable planet.

What would be even more encouraging would be to see large industrial consumers of power support the research and development of alternative forms of nuclear power like thorium fuel, as well as to reactor types such as molten salt, pebble bed and fast reactors. Those reactors could serve industry even better than today’s conventional reactors, both as a source electricity and of heat. That in its own right would be an electrifying ride into the future.

Photo of David Higgins from




  1. Martin Kral says:

    I definitely believe this relationship of industrial use and nuclear power could lead to a thorium fuel cycle investment. Unfortunately, it won’t happen with EDF. France is heavily invested in the uranium fuel cycle. They recently invested in mining and enriching uranium here in New Mexico. The investments for thorium fuel cycles has to come from non-nuclear and non-fossil investors because TMSRs are viewed as competition.

  2. Robin Gould says:

    Individual nuclear power packs for trains is quite feasible. We have the technical know-how as proven by Alvin Weinberg and need a UK lead R&D initiative to develop this technology into reality. The benefits will include a massive exporting potential, especially where electrification of tracks is presently unknown, plus a transmission efficiency improvement, where electrification is part of a nation’s infrastructure.

  3. John Gilbert says:

    It’s a bit rich buying green fuel from France, which produced by Nuclear generators – just those machines which we in Britain are so loth to have!!!! OK for France but not us, yet we are quite willing to use the power they produce. Something about double-standards comes to mind!

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