Hinkley C deal shows that UK urgently needs “Plan B” for nuclear
Whilst we welcome the contribution that Hinkley C will make to the fight against climate change, the saga of the deal proves beyond doubt that the UK Government must develop a “Plan B” for the next generation of nuclear power stations. We are all paying the price for two decades of under-investment in nuclear research and an official policy of industry fragmentation.
That the two new reactors will supply 7% of UK electricity shows the remarkable and under-appreciated potential of nuclear energy. We need new nuclear: it is the only proven means of reliably generating low-carbon, base-load electricity. Nonetheless, if it is to make a significant contribution, both the technology and our economic ideology will have to evolve.
Hinkley C deal gambles with long-term public support
The Government is to be applauded for including costs of decommissioning and waste management in the strike price, which compares favourably with other clean energy sources. However, the Weinberg Foundation is concerned that this deal’s complex financing structure could erode public support for nuclear power, just when we need its major benefits — of zero emissions, low operating costs, and reliable supply — the most.
The UK must replace its entire 11GW nuclear fleet within the next 15-20 years. DECC’s own analysis predicts that by 2050 we will need up to 7 times more nuclear power to meet rising demand for clean and reliable electricity. Yet it is unknown whether the public will support the construction of much-needed nuclear plants financed in the fashion pursued by the current government.
We need to rebuild the UK fission industry and inspire the general public. The UK needs a long-term plan grounded on investment in research and the training of young scientists and engineers. We must fund research to overcome the limitations of the current reactor technology, which requires huge up-front capital investment. Radically better, cheaper forms of nuclear power, such as Molten Salt Reactors, are possible.
Nuclear innovation is sorely needed
We need a concerted programme of nuclear R&D to make nuclear competitive with fossil fuels up-front, by lowering the capital cost. Next-generation reactors will be cheaper and researchers are working hard – at present with minimal public funding – to bring them to market.
For example, Molten Salt Reactors cannot melt-down, could utilise nuclear fuel thirty-times more efficiently than currently designs and could be mass-produced, greatly reducing the initial capital cost. The UK Government should invest in promising technologies like Molten Salt Reactors as a matter of urgency.
The UK Government, with industry, must do more to support the development of cheaper, safer and more sustainable reactors. A concerted programme of R&D now would lay the ground for a true revival of the UK nuclear industry and help to return the country to the top table of international engineering and manufacturing capability.
John Durham, Chairman of the Weinberg Foundation, said: “To fight climate change and ensure energy security we urgently need to lower the capital cost of new nuclear. The best way of doing this is through a coordinated R&D programme to develop the most promising next-generation reactors, such as Molten Salt Reactors. Investment in next-generation nuclear technology today will ensure that the UK leads the global nuclear revival in the years ahead.”
 Most Molten Salt Reactors have projected fuel “burn-up” rates exceeding 90%. Modern Light Water Reactors, such as the EPR scheduled for Hinkley C, can only burn-up approximately 3-4% of the fuel’s potential. (See the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Thorium Energy, Thorium-fuelled Molten Salt Reactors)