The Observer view on Britain’s urgent need to commit to nuclear power | Observer editorial

The government denied wavering over the future of Sizewell C, but it needs to come up with an energy plan – and quickly

For a moment last week, our cash-strapped government seemed ready to abandon a project that many experts believe is central to our plans of achieving energy independence and net zero emissions. According to the BBC, the Treasury had indicated the proposed new nuclear reactor Sizewell C was on a list of major construction projects that were under review for possible cancellation. Its days could be numbered, it was suggested.

The threat has since been denied by Number 10. The new atom plant in Suffolk will go ahead, it has insisted. For a nation that hopes to wean itself off its fossil fuel addiction and its dependence on natural gas imports, this is good news. The UK’s future prosperity depends on its ability to generate electricity, independently and at low cost and nuclear power is expected to play a critical role in ensuring this happens. The trouble is that these plans have very shaky foundations, as was revealed last week when uncertainties about Sizewell C first surfaced.

Britain has pledged to close all its coal power plants by 2024 while those that burn oil and gas are to be phased out by 2035. After that, a mix of renewables and nuclear plants is expected to fill this capacity, lighting and warming our homes, running our factories and keeping our trains and electric cars moving.

For their part, renewables are doing well, with wind and solar plants providing healthy chunks of power for the UK grid. This is not the case for the nuclear component of this energy package, however. Just as the nation’s fossil fuel plants are being closed down, reactors have been providing less and less power for the nation. In the 1990s, atomic power generated 25% of Britain’s electricity. By 2020, this figure had dropped to 16% and it will continue to decline as more of our ageing nuclear plants are closed.

Of the six reactors currently in operation, five are destined for closure by 2028. One additional new reactor, Hinkley Point C, should be in operation by then, leaving Britain with two reactors and limited fossil fuel provision – in addition to renewable sources – to supply power for the nation.

Unless new reactors are built, by 2050 British nuclear capacity – the proposed cornerstone of the nation’s energy supply for the future – will be a third of what it is today. Solar and wind power will no doubt do their bit but on a freezing cold, windless, winter evening, the UK’s lack of a central generating capacity will be cruelly exposed. Blackouts will be inevitable.

The proposed Sizewell C reactor will therefore be welcome, though on its own the plant will be insufficient for the nation’s needs. Britain will require at least half a dozen such reactors to provide the gigawatts of electricity on which it will depend to fend off a future that lacks power to run our homes and operate our factories.

The problem is that a new nuclear plant takes around a decade to build once it has been approved. By that arithmetic, time is now desperately tight if the United Kingdom is to have the numbers it requires to generate the power the country is going to need.

Nuclear energy is certainly not without flaws. Construction costs and waste storage are two clear examples. However, the government has committed the nation to atomic power. Having done so, it is now obliged to act with a speed that will provide the country with sufficient nuclear electricity – and keep the lights on over the next two decades.

Contributor

Observer editorial

The GuardianTramp

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