While some aspects of our everyday life changed significantly during the pandemic, two things have remained constant, our ever-increasing energy demands and questions around the capacity of our ageing energy infrastructure to meet this demand. That makes the Energy White Paper crucial and its continuing delay a problem.
That White Paper presents the UK Government with a golden opportunity to give a clear demand signal to industry of what it is needed to keep the lights on today, tomorrow and for future generations. That must include a role for nuclear which can not only bridge the gap between capacity and demand but unlock the path to net zero.
The industry has been in limbo for more than a decade and too many schemes have fallen by the wayside because the policy direction was unclear. We cannot afford to miss out on future opportunities to secure the clean, reliable energy we will need, and that means projects need the green light now. If the Treasury, BEIS and the Prime Minister all get behind nuclear and provide a clear direction for meeting the country’s future energy needs, then investors, developers and the supply chain will respond.
The last Energy White Paper, which was published in 2006, is the reason why we have major projects like Hinkley Point C underway. Back then, the government had an ambition, it was clear on nuclear, and its role and investors, industry and supply chain took up the challenge.
The nuclear sector deal signed two years ago was a great start to building a new future for the sector. It recognised the potential of nuclear not only to provide a path to a low carbon future but also to build a highly skilled workforce which could benefit the whole economy. It could stimulate the development of advanced manufacturing and construction techniques as well as create new export markets. Yet two years on, these ambitions risk fading away because the policy framework and direction has not been made clear.
Nuclear undoubtedly suffers from the problem that it is expensive, technically complex and with very long build times. That can make it financially risky for investors. Yet it need not be that way. There is real potential to do things better, to improve performance and lower costs. With the right approach, we could see improvements in affordability, competitiveness and performance from design and build through to generation and sustainable decommissioning.
A move to encourage the development of small modular reactors is one way to drive down costs and build times by standardisation of design, offsite manufacture of modules. It would require a different mindset and transformation of the supply chain, but it is possible. The recent announcement by Rolls Royce that it plans to build up to 16 of these reactors underline that industry is ready and able to develop these kinds of new approaches.
The nuclear sector can also draw inspiration from other sectors. The recent developments in Hyperloop, a concept that could transform travel, by allowing us to travel at 1000km per hour show how the combination of ambition, entrepreneurial mindsets and technical mastery can bring even highly futuristic concepts within the realms of possibility. A clear direction from the government could stimulate that kind of innovation and disruptive mindset in the nuclear sector.
This is a national imperative, but with the Energy White Paper still delayed this opportunity is slowly slipping away.