Chloë discusses the UK’s recent nuclear political history, and why choices made in the 80’s might have damaged the future of nuclear energy.
The UK currently has 15 nuclear reactors which generate about 18% of our yearly energy consumption1. 14 of these reactors are due to be shutdown by 2030, with the final, Sizewell B, having an expected shutdown date of 20351. No new reactors have been built since Sizewell B in 1995 and if this remains the case the 18% of our energy production we get from nuclear will continue to decline. If renewable energy sources do not fill this gap, which seems unlikely, our import dependence, which is already high (47% in 20132), will be at least 70%. Not an ideal situation for the UK to be in.
13 new nuclear power plants are currently planned and most of them have estimated start up dates in the mid 2020’s1. This should plug the gap left when current generators are shutdown. However, the first of these, Hinkley Point C, had an initial start-up date of 2017 but due to numerous issues the date has been pushed back to 20233. If the rest of the new wave of power plants follow suit the UK could enter an energy crisis. So why has there been two decades with no new nuclear power stations?
Until 1983 we, the UK, disposed of our low and intermediate level nuclear waste by dropping it in the Atlantic4. When we were quite rightly forced to stop this process decommissioning and waste disposal became a much costlier problem. In addition, the cost of building Sizewell B was steadily increasing and nuclear power was looking very unfavourable. In 1989 the government announced no new nuclear power stations were to be built until a review of nuclear policy was performed4. Once in place policy is slow and hard to change. The review wasn’t published until 1995. It stated public sector nuclear power stations were “inappropriate”5 and privatisation of current plants had already begun.
Eleven years later, then Prime Minister, Tony Blair said nuclear power was “back on the agenda with vengeance”4 but no public sector funding was allocated. Instead private companies were required to foot the bill of resurrecting our nuclear power when each plant was estimated to cost £2.8 billion in 20086. Fortunately EDF energy, Horizon Nuclear Power, NuGeneration and China General Nuclear have happily obliged and the new wave of nuclear is beginning. However, the cost of building Hinkley Point C has risen to £18 billion and has had to be subsidized by the government3.
Nuclear power is evidently a costly affair, especially at the beginning and end of a plants life. Some believe the new surge of nuclear is to help the UK remain a nuclear weapons state7 but with our high imports of energy the generation of our own power would be favourable. Renewable energy contributed to 19.2% of our electricity generation in 20142, a record high, but by itself not enough to reduce the import burden. Perhaps if we had thoroughly thought through the life of a nuclear power plant and planned an acceptable way to deal with waste instead of dropping it into the ocean then nuclear costs wouldn’t have been such a shock in the mid 1980’s and nuclear power stations would have continued to be regularly built.
Chloë Oakland is a PhD. student at The University of Manchester