Adversity helps usher a new nuclear age

The UK government has identified nuclear energy as having a key role in a “secure, low-carbon, affordable energy future”. Simon Tolson explains more. 


This position was taken before Russia started a war with Ukraine. It is all made the more poignant now. In April 2022, a new government body, Great British Nuclear, was set up to bring forward new projects, backed by the funding of £120 million Future Nuclear Enabling Fund.1

Then, in May 2022, Boris Johnson stated that his government plans to “build a nuclear reactor every year rather than once every decade”. If this were achieved, it would still be a decade before the grid would benefit. A recent report by the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) clearly stated how important nuclear power is to net zero targets: “the world’s climate objectives will not be met if nuclear technologies are excluded from future decarbonisation”.2

Reducing emissions now requires extending the life of nuclear plants, and substantially enhancing the rate of nuclear new build. Nuclear is a major source of clean energy in Europe. It is also symbiotic with the needs of power networks. A high proportion of variable renewable energy (VRE) through wind and solar needs the “crutch” of nuclear as it is the only substantial source of clean “firm” power that can meet base load requirements for now. Without it, and even with existing battery storage, blackouts and brownouts are likely whenever there is calm weather (wind drought3) with cloud cover across the European landmass, particularly at night when solar ceases to work. Battery power is economic only over a maximum four-hour period. Nuclear provides the only possible source of sustainable firm power to replace coal and gas.

Why we fell out of love with nuclear

The first reason for the UK’s slow progress in nuclear is the UK’s poor record of building major power infrastructure on time and to budget. Indeed, many of the reactors built in the 1960s and ‘70s were poorly procured due to the absence of good project management, namely, the planning and construction of such Civil Nuclear Regulator4 controlled infrastructure projects.5 For example, Dungeness B station in Kent, the first AGR station, started construction in 1965 and was meant to be completed within five years. The station was not connected to the grid until 1983 and did not start commercial operation until 1985 – 15 years behind schedule. As early as 1969, the Wilson Committee, which was set up to examine the causes of these delays, pointed to inefficient management.6 Project managers responsible for overseeing construction were either incompetent or had little incentive to speed things up, and the committee recommended that more control should be exercised. 

The second reason nuclear lacked popularity was that it was cheaper to construct and operate the highly efficient Combined Cycle Gas Turbines (CCGT), i.e., gas-fired power stations exemplified by the 1990s “Dash for Gas” which, today, supply 42% of UK electricity, dominating our electricity generation.

The paucity of nuclear electricity generation was also due to Labour's actions in government:

1. In 1997, they closed down the small modular reactor programme launched by John Major's government in 1995.

2. In 1997, they banned the building of new nuclear power stations in the UK (but permitted Sizewell B to be completed).

3. Many years later, they said they would allow new nuclear power stations to be constructed but no public money could be used.

A third blow to nuclear was dealt in March 2011. The tsunami disaster at Fukushima Daiichi stopped new nuclear in its tracks in Japan and led many countries to also halt planned stations. In Europe, Germany’s knee-jerk move was to permanently shut down eight of its 17 reactors and pledge to close the rest by the end of 2022.7 Suddenly, nuclear was the sick patient. 

Last, but not least, the growing popularity of the Green Party movement stated its fundamental opposition to nuclear energy, which it considers expensive and dangerous, not carbon neutral, and reliant on uranium8 which is not renewable. The Green political movement was largely shaped in the ’70s to ’80s when nuclear power was very new and, in the minds of many, linked to military use and its risks little-understood. At that date, environmentalist opposition to it was arguably justified. Today, many people believe that nuclear is safe, clean and well-understood enough that environmentalists should support it. But many Green voters remain unconvinced.

The UK undertook no new nuclear power station building after Sizewell B was completed in 1995 until Hinkley Point C started in March 2017. Work on the Wylfa Newydd project in Anglesey was suspended in 2020 after Hitachi failed to reach a funding agreement with the UK government. Moreover, although six sites were originally identified over a decade earlier for replacement, only one, Hinkley Point C, is under construction. It is hoped that funding via the Regulated Asset Base (RAB) model9 will enable Sizewell C to be economically financed10 with others to follow. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has increased the importance of making it possible for Sizewell C participants to reach a final investment decision. And on 29 November 2022 Rishi Sunak’s government, following the lead of Boris Johnson, confirmed the go-ahead of the project. 

Sizewell C will be a 3,200 MWe power station comprising of two EPR units on the site that currently hosts a single large, pressurised water reactor (Sizewell B). With the exception of site-specific foundations and structures, the new power station will be a copy of Hinkley Point C.

Like Hinkley Point C, Sizewell C will be capable of supplying approximately 7% of the UK’s annual electricity requirement. It will be able to run at full power for 90% (or more) of the hours in the year.

By following Hinkley Point, Sizewell is not a first of kind and so should be a less risky project. Trades have been trained construction glitches have been sorted out, supply chains have been created, managers have gained experience, and designs have been proofed, completed, commissioned, and tested. As a result of this “de-risking”, Sizewell C will be a more economically palatable venture that should begin saving customers’ money once operating.

Wylfa is awaiting approval for what will be a resurrection. Oldbury and Bradwell are, for now, mothballed sites and await new opportunities, maybe using SMRs. 

Consequently, as of September 2022, the UK has only nine operational nuclear reactors at the five locations below (eight advanced gas-cooled reactors (AGR) and one pressurised water reactor (PWR)), producing 5.9 GWe.

Power stations


Equally, across the pond, rising electricity prices and rolling blackouts in California in 2020 focused fresh attention on nuclear power’s key role in keeping America’s lights on. Today, 92 nuclear plants crank out one-fifth of the US’s total electrical output. And despite residual public misgivings over Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986,11 the industry has learned its lessons and established a solid safety record during the past 20 years or so. More encouragement for Sizewell C’s potential viability.


Currently, European nuclear chiefly feeds off France. Of the 103 nuclear power reactors (100 GWe) in operation in 13 of the 27 EU member states, over half of the EU’s nuclear electricity is produced by France. The 56 units operating in three non-EU countries (Russia, Ukraine and Switzerland) account for about 15 to 20% of the electricity in the rest of Europe. But, with half of France’s reactors now down for maintenance, the timing could not be worse.

The demand for more juice and energy security

The rapid growth of the population and the drive for economic development rely on continuous supply of energy and the upgrade in the electricity infrastructure. Although fossil fuels are still the primary energy source,12 the problems associated with security of supply and transmission and the environmental impact from CO2 emissions now limit their use. However, in the midst of the energy transition from old fossil-based power to new technologies, renewables are needed. 

Any UK shift to nuclear will take some years to hit the grid. It is no answer for 2022 which will see domestic energy cost increase by 180% and business’ bills double. This has, of course, been driven by Russia’s reductions in gas supply to Europe this year and then, at the end of August 2022, ceasing its gas supplies via the Nord Stream 1 pipeline altogether. This has increased European demand just as the world emerges from Covid restrictions. The prospect of these gas shortages and fuel poverty has naturally brought energy security to the top of the political agenda.

Low carbon and renewable energy sources, such as nuclear and renewables, will now be increasingly adopted13 to progressively meet these energy demands.

UK government bites the bullet on nuclear and SMRs

In November 2021, the UK government announced that the UK would invest £210 million in small modular nuclear reactors (SMRs). Not a moment too soon.

Rolls Royce14 in the UK leads the way with their small modular nuclear reactors. The company's 470-megawatt SMR will cost about £1.8 billion and will require a site of only about 10 acres, in contrast to Hinkley Point’s 430 acres. This means the SMR power plants will have a power density of over 10,000 watts per square metre - that can be easily accommodated. The good news is that Rolls Royce expects to receive regulatory approval from the government by 2024 for its SMR and that it will begin producing power on Britain’s electric grid by 2029.

The UK SMR programme aims to:

  • Return £52 billion of value to the UK economy by 2050 if a full fleet of 16 stations is built;
  • Generate a £250 billion export market with job creation of up to 40,000 high-value jobs; and
  • Rejuvenate UK manufacturing communities in the north of England and north Wales.

SMRs can also be deployed on ships and in aircraft. Their “modular” format means they can be shipped by container from the factory and installed relatively quickly on any proposed site.  They can be used in providing energy to produce hydrogen to create synthetic fuel. 

The advantage of SMRs is that they have a projected construction time of three to five years, while a large reactor takes typically nearer 10 to 12 years. At over 400 Mwe, they also deliver some serious electrical punch and, at approximately £1.8 billion, extremely good value.

The UK moves now in progress for both larger reactors (European Pressurised Reactors (EPRs)) and a mix of SMRs have been accelerated by the aforementioned soaring international gas and electricity prices, and the very real possibility of gas shortages (ergo less electricity generated) this winter 2022. This is now hastening the global shift to green energy in the long run, but at the expense of higher current demand for hydrocarbon fuels.15 But one thing is clear: Europe has been pushing gas and nuclear as an essential part of the energy transition from oil and coal. Europe's dependence on Russian gas has inspired an emphatic push for energy independence, especially via renewables and alternate supply routes for liquified natural gas.

Energy security

Looking back, the UK does not have the best track record with nuclear plants, with some plants closing earlier than expected. Hunterston B closed in January 2022 due to cracks in the reactor’s graphite core, and Dungeness was decommissioned in 2021 due to corrosion in the pipework.

Moreover, there has been a noticeable lack of a stream of replacement plants coming online to replace the aging fleet as the units slowly die off one by one.

A variety of measures will be required to maintain and enhance the UK’s energy security through the net zero transition. Demand reduction, such as through improved household insulation and more energy efficient appliances and machinery, has been shown to be a fast, inexpensive, and effective way of improving energy security by lowering overall energy demand. Increasing the amount of domestic energy generation can lessen the risk of energy failing to get to customers, either due to problems transmitting or transporting it, or due to geopolitical tensions. As the energy transition progresses, new sources of flexible electricity generation to balance supply and demand will be needed, such as batteries, green hydrogen, demand response or interconnection with other networks.

The UK’s ambitious nuclear plans come at a time when France’s nuclear fleet is at half capacity, shut down due to routine maintenance and defects. The UK is getting no electricity from the French interconnectors.

Could a new nuclear reactor each year be the solution the UK needs to alleviate its energy-related woes, to generate 24GW by 2050, harking back to the days of the French large-scale nuclear buildout of the 1980s, in which 44 nuclear plants began commercial operation in a single decade? Or has the golden age of nuclear been and gone? After all, the last time France put a new reactor live was over 20 years ago. I suggest we are about to see a nuclear renaissance.

The expectation now is that Sizewell C will use the RAB model, successful on the Thames Tideway Tunnel and Heathrow's Terminal 5, to finance the construction and operation. Here’s to the renaissance in nuclear! 

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  • 1. The Fund is open to both traditional larger projects and to Small Modular Reactors (SMRs).
  • 2.
  • 3. “Wind drought” experienced in Europe in 2021 saw SSE in the UK report a 32% drop in power from its renewable assets.
  • 4. Since 2014, the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), a public corporation independent of central government.
  • 5. A 1963 select committee report on the electricity industry pointed out that it took five years for a station to be commissioned in the UK, compared to two-and-a-half years in the US and just 13 months in Japan.
  • 6. Report of the Committee of Enquiry into Delays in Commissioning C.E.G.B. Power Stations
  • 7. On 6 September 2022, the German government announced its plans to keep the Isar 2 and Neckarwestheim nuclear power plants, both of which are located in the southern part of the country as emergency power stations.
  • 8. Uranium is a relatively common element in the crust of the Earth (very much more than in the mantle). It is a metal approximately as common as tin or zinc, and it is a constituent of most rocks and even of the sea and we have at least 180 years supply.
  • 9. The RAB simply assesses the value of the assets used in the performance of a regulated function. In practice, it is an accounting number that reflects the value of past investments into network infrastructure.
  • 10. On 20 July 2022, the Sizewell C Project application was granted development consent by the Secretary of State for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy.
  • 11. It is estimated that the explosion released about 400 times more radioactive material into the earth’s atmosphere than both the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.
  • 12. Sanctions introduced since Russia’s war on Ukraine has meant Germany has increased its use of coal by 27%.
  • 13. Making large amounts of fuel from organic matter as biofuels (fuel ethanol, biodiesel, renewable diesel, renewable heating oil, and sustainable aviation fuel (SFA)) has proved to be more difficult and costly than expected given grain crop prices and food demand. The most difficult challenge in developing biofuels for the next few years is the cost for economic feedstocks.
  • 14. Rolls-Royce SMR Ltd has designed a factory built nuclear power plant that will offer clean, affordable energy for all.
  • 15. On 19 July 2022 National Grid paid £9,724 per megawatt hour, more than 5,000% than the typical price, to Belgium to prevent south-east London losing power!