If ever there was a year which the phrase ‘expect the unexpected’ seemed relevant – 2016 is it. From the referendum decision to leave the European Union, and the resulting new leadership in the UK Government, to the election of Donald Trump, it’s been a year of unpredicted events.
For the UK’s civil nuclear industry, much of the attention was on the decision – and the protracted nature of aspects of that decision – on the go-ahead for Hinkley Point C in Somerset.
In what became an effective confidence test for large scale energy infrastructure projects across the UK, the government’s confirmation now means that construction work begins for the much-needed low carbon baseload power, so retiring plant can be replaced.
With two thirds of our generation capacity due to retire between 2010 and 2030, a secure and reliable power supply for the future needs to be developed, using a balanced mix of power sources.
If we want to avoid repeating the German experience of increasing, not reducing, the carbon intensity of power being generated, then all low carbon sources need to work in combination to deliver that reliable and available power without busting our climate targets.
With a third of all power being generated in Scotland coming from nuclear ( and a fifth of all UK electricity) Hinkley might be the big story, but it can’t be the only nuclear deal in town. During 2016, both Horizon (in north Wales) and NuGen (in Cumbria) have made significant progress towards their reactor designs being approved by the UK’s world-leading, independent regulator.
2016 also marked the 60th anniversary of civil nuclear power in the UK at Calder Hall, the UK’s first power station opened by the Queen in October 1956. During that time, the UK’s nuclear fleet has avoided millions of tonnes of carbon emissions, while generating a reliable and available power supply for homes, businesses and public services.
The innovation and pioneering spirit remains in many companies, including in Scotland, who are part of an international industry where expertise developed in the UK is in demand.
The world is watching the UK with increasing interest, and the development of small modular reactors holds out promise for world-leading technology to be developed, and a supply chain to be built, here.
That is why for the nuclear sector, and for energy industries more widely, the eagerly awaited industrial strategy, which the UK government is due to set out early in 2017, will be so crucial.
We all know there is a significant need for investment in infrastructure to replace retiring plant, and we are all acutely aware of the impact that investment (in whatever forms of generation, storage and efficiency) has on consumers.
Maximising the economic benefit from that essential renewal of infrastructure that can be delivered in the UK is an important consideration. The dislocation of skilled people from one part of the energy industry can, with some imagination and forward thinking, help address shortages in other areas.
Developing the supply chain here – be that in wind turbine blades or pumps used in power stations – helps ensure the benefit of that investment is spread throughout the country.
The potential of small modular reactor, where the intellectual property could be developed and reside with UK companies, could take that to a whole new level.
Of course, a coherent industrial strategy – that can attract investors, encourage manufacturers to expand and develop, deliver long term skilled high quality jobs for a generation – will rest on a stable framework for energy policy too.
This is difficult to achieve when governments change so frequently, and against the backdrop of unpredictability and a volatile world, but industry has an important part to play too. It is as much as about what we can do as what we demand of government, arguably more so.
That should start, and perhaps as an optimist we can get off to a better start on this in 2017, with an end to the endless, circular, disjointed and ultimately futile technology v technology debates that characterise the industry.
Nobody is going to seek to prevent the advantages of different power sources being promoted, but everybody should also acknowledge that there is not a single power source that can realistically deliver a reliable, secure power supply in as low carbon a way as possible.
Noisy voices from some organisations and commentators whose stridency is well known is not going to go away – but industry should resist the temptation to simply amplify simplistic and ultimately misleading statements that do little more than justify a particular prejudice.
The reality is that the challenge of renewing and upgrading infrastructure while reducing carbon emissions on the scale we will have to do will need all parts of the energy sector to contribute.
The energy industry will continue to come under significant scrutiny in the next 12 months, as it has in the last year. Nuclear is no different.
There is a lot to do in 2017, but there is a greater chance of making real progress if collectively energy industries focus on the scale of our collective challenge, and the contribution we each can make in meeting it.
Tom Greatrex is the chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association