To meet anticipated electricity demands, the UK will need to quadruple its low-carbon generation by 2050. Andrew Storer reflects on the vital role of nuclear on the road to net zero.
With the latest warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and November’s UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26) looking like a last chance to agree on international action against unchecked global heating, we all need to think about what it will take to reach net zero emissions. Decarbonising our electricity supply is an obvious priority.
We have the tools to deliver but, with the clock ticking, the UK has yet to commit to the intensive action and investment needed to deploy them. Getting moving now is essential if we are to reach our net zero ambition for 2050 and capitalise on real economic benefits to be won as we restart the economy.
By 2050, total electricity demand in the UK is expected to double as we complete the transition to electric vehicles and low-carbon heating. To meet that demand and to maintain progress to net zero, the UK will need to quadruple its low-carbon generation by 2050.
Today, around half of our electricity comes from low-carbon sources, with nuclear contributing some 40 percent of that. It’s a vital ingredient in the UK’s energy mix, providing a low-carbon source of firm, reliable power when the sun doesn’t shine and the winds don’t blow.
New nuclear technology
Around the world, climate scientists are clear that the world’s climate objectives will not be met if nuclear technologies are excluded. But here in the UK there’s a problem. Our nuclear fleet is aging. Every existing nuclear power plant will have ceased operation well before 2050, in fact all but one perhaps by 2030.
We therefore need an ambitious domestic nuclear programme based on existing and new technologies to deliver the power the UK will need without pumping carbon into our atmosphere. And investing in nuclear now, will also open up deeper decarbonisation opportunities including more efficient hydrogen generation, synthetic fuel production, and much more.
Nuclear investment will also put the UK at the helm of a growing world market. Every nation in the world faces a similar electricity challenge: growing demand and the urgent need to decarbonise. With new types of reactors getting closer to the market, including the more flexible and affordable small modular reactors (SMRs), there is a very real opportunity for British companies to take the lead using their manufacturing expertise and innovation to reduce the cost of the low-carbon transition while driving economic growth and creating jobs across our industrial heartlands.
The High Value Manufacturing Catapult’s Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (Nuclear AMRC), part of the University of Sheffield, is a vital part of making sure that the UK can seize that opportunity.
The team is deeply involved with pre-production development of the Rolls-Royce SMR, a compact 470MW power plant designed to avoid the challenges afflicting gigawatt-scale reactors. The first plant could be in operation around 2030, with up to 80 percent by value of components set to be made in factories in the Midlands and North of England – creating some 6,000 jobs by 2025, and 40,000 by 2035.
Beyond that, there’s a new generation of advanced modular reactors (AMRs) in early-stage development. These include high temperature gas reactors which could revolutionise hydrogen production and cogeneration; and commercial fusion reactors for truly limitless emission-free power. Without nuclear working alongside renewables and other technologies, we have next to no chance of reaching net zero emissions.
We also face the loss of skilled jobs in some of the most economically challenged parts of the country, and the loss of vital skills and capabilities throughout the supply chain. For nuclear to play its full role in the energy mix, we urgently need to see action and leadership from government.
Earlier this year, I worked closely with MPs and industry partners to understand what needs to happen in the current Parliament. That identified 10 key actions, such as legislating for a new financing model to unlock gigawatt-scale projects such as Sizewell C, and support for SMR and AMR development.
The potential economic benefits are immense. Investment in new nuclear capacity could bring as many as 300,000 jobs and £33bn of added annual economic value across the UK, the chance to regain our global lead in technology, and some fantastic opportunities for nuclear-ready manufacturers.
To help the supply chain understand the host of nuclear technologies under development in the UK – and, most importantly, to connect manufacturers with buyers – we are hosting the first Nuclear Manufacturing Summit in November.
The two-day event will provide vital information about opportunities in the key nuclear programmes, what you need to do to win work now and over the next 30 years, and how we can work together as an industry to meet the challenges.
We have speakers from all the big nuclear programmes – covering new build, SMRs and AMRs, and decommissioning – plus one-to-one sessions to help you really explore the opportunities with the buyers.
More info www.nuclearmanufacturingsummit.co.uk
More from The Manufacturer? Visit our Sustainability section.