A talk on the merits of nuclear by Neville Chamberlain given at a seminar on the future of energy organised by the Worshipful Company of Fuellers and EY in London in May 2022.
First let’s be clear. Society will continue to demand more and more energy – despite all our efforts to be more energy efficient, to restrain our uses, we shall still demand more and more. Asking everyone to use less energy than they need for the way of life they expect is asking for a level of self-denial that is impossible. And no government, wanting to stay in office, will let the lights go out, no matter what commitments they may have made about limiting climate change. Last Summer, when the wind didn’t blow, what did the NG do to keep the lights on? They started up what old coal burners were still available.
Why does Germany keep a fleet of coal burners at the ready? Of course, to keep the lights on whatever happens to Russian gas!
It is clear to me that if we are to keep using lots of energy and we don’t want to exacerbate climate change, then we have to switch to electricity, and that is electricity generated without emitting greenhouse gases and which is reliable, secure and affordable. We are expected to switch from gas central heating in our homes to electric. We are expected to switch from liquid fuel to electricity for our transport needs. Where will all this electricity come from? The only non-carbon sources really are so-called renewables and nuclear. I believe that both must play major roles. (OK, hydrogen may well have a role to play, but that’s another issue; it is certainly not a silver bullet!)
So let me concentrate on nuclear.
The first problem is that it is immensely capital intensive with a long payback period, and significant perceived political risks. Our primary private capital investors are not geared for that. Life is too short for them and, despite claiming to be risk takers, they are usually risk averse. Nuclear power plants have grown massively in size in an effort to benefit from economies of scale. But this, in turn, has resulted in ever more complicated projects, longer timescales, more and more specific requirements in infrastructure and siting issues. Now, there is interest in the concept of Small Modular Reactors, where economies of scale are achieved by replicating standard design reactors in a factory, units that can be shipped to site by road transport, ready-built. This massively reduces the risk for the power station customer.
There is intensive competition now to design and prototype new Small Modular reactors, including of course Rolls-Royce who have been making a type of SMR for decades for the Royal Navy.
The second problem is that nuclear has presented as too difficult for Government (and officials), partly because it is something very few of them understand and partly prompted by severe image attacks, often by those who have vested interests in alternatives and or by its association with historic nuclear weapons. Moreover, by heaping additional costs on the nuclear industry wherever possible, opponents have tried to price nuclear out of the market. The industry itself hasn’t helped by leading its PR campaigns on safety issues instead of the positives. British Gas never advertised how many fewer houses it blew up last year but rather on the convenience of gas.
So what are the positives for nuclear?
Well we have the technology. Big reactors, small reactors. A variety of well proven models around the world with lots of reliable operation.
We have suitable sites, already licenced and well connected to the grid.
We have, in this country I believe, the best nuclear regulatory system in the world (we could have another debate on that!) Although we do like to take enormous time over planning consents in this country! But that’s another vested industry that wants its extended moment in the sun!
And, despite years of running down the UK’s nuclear industry we still have the technical competence to manage the technology.
Most significantly, nuclear power stations, once built, can run for decades with very low operating costs and very little chance for outsiders to interfere with them. (You can buy a whole lifetime’s uranium at the outset and from friendly territories such as Canada or Australia.) And nuclear generation is immune to the weather. It is tremendously reliable. So, it is reliable and secure.
Finally, nuclear power is affordable, especially at the moment. But because f the high initial investment, especially with the large power stations, there are funding issues. In most parts of the world Governments provide the funding. Frankly, they are the source of the biggest risk to such major projects during construction so they are best placed to manage the risk. Now at last, our own government seems to understand this and is prepared to chip in, or, more ominously, place the risk with the customer.
I personally believe that the time to sell a nuclear power plant into the private sector is when it has been commissioned and is set to run for the next 60 or even 80 years with very modest running costs and very little risk to its stable operation. Ideal, I should have thought for pension funds!
One downside I would say of nuclear power plants is that they are not good at load-following. Once running they are best left to run continuously. But with a capital intensive investment, that’s what you want. So there is a practical limit on the percentage of your electricity that should be generated by nuclear and that is equivalent to your minimum daily demand, usually about 45% of peak demand.
In short, I believe that we will not meet the climate change challenge without a significant slice of nuclear power.
Recently, the Government declared an energy strategy involving several new nuclear power stations so let’s get on with it. The sooner we start, the sooner we shall have our solution. Set up a suitable body to drive it forward (don’t leave it to the civil service to try to do it!). And, please, don’t waste more time on more rounds of consultations.