In the wake of the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, newly-promoted chancellor Philip Hammond reassured leading economies that Britain was “open for business”.
For investment in parts of the UK’s nuclear industry, however, the door seems to have been shut – even if temporarily.
In July the new-look Tory government revealed that Hinkley Point C – an £18bn, 3,200MW nuclear project in Somerset – would be put on hold while it reviewed the fine print.
This new review [of Hinkley Point C] must then quickly and definitively determine if this investment is good value for money, or what the best alternative plan is that will deliver clean, secure energy at a reasonable cost
Alyssa Gilbert, Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment
The announcement was made just hours after French energy firm EDF, which has a majority stake in Hinkley Point C, approved final investment for the project.
Analysing the government’s decision, Alyssa Gilbert, head of policy and translation at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London, says the government needs to reassure potential investors and allay fears that the UK might actually not be open for business.
“This new review [of Hinkley Point C] must then quickly and definitively determine if this investment is good value for money, or what the best alternative plan is that will deliver clean, secure energy at a reasonable cost,” Gilbert says.
Mark Wenman, lecturer in nuclear engineering materials at Imperial College London, says the construction of Hinkley Point C is vital for the UK.
“Although other nuclear projects have been delayed in Europe, this provides the opportunity to show that big infrastructure projects can be delivered in the UK, which may bring further investment and jobs,” he says.
Also commenting on the delay to Hinkley Point C, Jean Llewellyn, chief executive of the National Skills Academy for Nuclear (NSAN), says the UK has to make the “proper” decision.
“It’s up to the new government, which needs to make sure Hinkley Point is in line with its current priorities,” Llewellyn says.
She suggests the delay, which is expected to be resolved in autumn this year, is just a means of taking a “mature and grownup look at the project specifics”.
However, if Hinkley Point C were to be scrapped, more than 25,000 jobs would be at risk.
“Nuclear energy is carbon-friendly and helps reduce emissions, but it’s also a great way of building the UK’s nuclear skills base, while helping to maintain jobs,” Llewellyn says.
She adds that major new build projects – including those at Wylfa Newydd and Moorside – were vital for the continuation and growth of the UK’s nuclear skills sector.
“At the moment, there is a massive amount of interest in careers in the nuclear industry,” Llewellyn says.
Nuclear energy is carbon-friendly and helps reduce emissions, but it’s also a great way of building the UK’s nuclear skills base, while helping to maintain jobs
Jean Llewellyn, chief executive of the National Skills Academy for Nuclear
However, she fears that if any of the UK’s major new build projects are sidelined, there won’t be enough opportunities for engineers - many of whom have trained specifically to be part of the new build side of the industry.
“Without Hinkley Point, Wylfa Newydd and Moorside, people could be forced to abandon a career in nuclear and will just go and work in other sectors,” Llewellyn says.
Alongside employment concerns, Llewellyn says it is also vital for the UK’s energy security that new plants get built because the “clock is ticking” on the amount of capacity that will go offline between 2020 and 2030.
She also says that because of the current global situation, the UK must make sure it has its own energy supply. “You should not just rely on imports,” Llewellyn warns.
“There is an obvious need to keep the lights on at all times. One of the major positives for investing in nuclear energy is the ability to maintain the base load, which allows power to be generated consistently.”
And in an effort to supplement the UK’s major reactor projects, the government has also launched a small modular reactor (SMR) development programme.
Originally announced as part of the 2015 Autumn Statement, the SMR development programme was designed to position the UK as a global leader in innovative nuclear technologies.
Thirty-three bidders have already been considered eligible to take part in the competition. The list includes the likes of China National Nuclear Corporation, which has a stake in Hinkley Point C, as well as bids from Westinghouse, which is supplying reactors at Moorside new nuclear build.
“The Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre, Rolls-Royce and the National Nuclear Laboratory have also put together a SMR proposal and that is looking quite promising,” Llewellyn says.
However, Tom Greatrex, chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA), warns that the SMR competition, which is still in its infancy, needs to be carefully set out.
There is a long way to go in developing SMR technology
Tom Greatrex, chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA)
“This is so you don’t get the equivalent of what happened with the scrapped carbon capture and storage (CCS) competition,” says Greatrex, when some potential applicants dropped out because they considered the criteria for the competition too prescriptive.
Greatrex also says that SMR technology should not yet be considered available for use. “There is a long way to go in developing SMR technology,” he says.
Greatrex adds that we are entering a vital period, running between now and the early part of next year, which could determine whether or not there is any potential for SMRs to be realised in the UK.
He says if successfully developed, it is highly likely SMRs will be deployed at sites with existing nuclear licences.
“There are some current nuclear licence sites which are potentially suitable for SMR technology,” Greatrex says.
“For example, Trawsfynydd, Wales, which had a Magnox power station, but which didn’t have a suitable site licence for large new nuclear, could become a site for one of the early SMRs in the UK.”
He also says SMR technology could bring a lot of opportunities to certain areas in the UK.
“This includes opportunities in relation to the manufacturing supply chain and potential intellectual property and the exportability of that,” he says.
However, Greatrex argues that this will only happen if the UK is at the forefront of SMR development.
Strike a balance
The electricity grid is in dire need of a new strategy, according to MPs who called for an overhaul to energy network operations in June.
Under increasing pressure to shift to a low-carbon network and balance ever more complicated energy flows, a shift to the independent system operator (ISO) model used in the US is the approach favoured by the Energy and Climate Change Committee.
This would entail transferring system operation from National Grid to an independent system operator at the national level and distribution system operators (DSOs) at the regional level.
“Local energy is here, with astonishing growth in generation connected directly to regional networks,” says chairman of the committee, Angus Brendan MacNeil.
The importance of technology such as smart meters and a smart grid are seen as essential to enabling this transition, he says. This is because energy storage solutions, demand side response (DSR), interconnection and other ‘smart-grid’ technologies can help to balance a low-carbon network.
“Innovative solutions – like storage and DSR – to 21st century energy problems have been held back by legislative and regulatory inertia,” says MacNeil.
“The UK needs clean, renewable power, but it won’t be built if it’s too costly or difficult for generators to connect to the electricity grid. Distribution networks have been overwhelmed at times by the challenge of integrating small-scale renewables.”
New technologies are now trickling into market to address some of these concerns. In April a collective of corporate energy users unveiled plans to create a new energy ecosystem in the UK.
Called the Living Grid, the initiative will create 200MW of flexible power across the UK, based on smart technology powered by Open Energi.
Founding partners United Utilities, Aggregate Industries and Sainsbury’s say their goal is “to help modernise and relieve the pressure on the country’s existing, static electricity system”.
Smart technology powered by tech partner Open Energi allows equipment to continuously adjust its electricity usage to adapt to peaks and troughs in demand and supply across the grid without affecting its performance.
It has already been piloted by the three key partners who intend to roll it out nationally with the aim of achieving 90,000 tonnes of carbon savings by 2020.
“Energy is one of our biggest costs and it’s vital that we get smarter at how we use it,” says Jonathan Dobson, United Utilities’ sustainability strategy manager.
“In supporting the Living Grid we’re proud to show the huge scope for the water industry to use electricity in a more flexible way.”
The new network aims to recruit 20 organisations to create 200MW of flexible demand across the grid by 2020.
A separate, more consumer-based grid initiative called Upside Energy has also recently received £545,000 in seed funding.
Upside Energy will allow electricity consumers to shift their usage from peak to off-peak times by co-ordinating the energy stored in systems they already own such as uninterruptible power supplies, solar PV systems, electric vehicles, and domestic heating systems. Upside Energy creates a large Virtual Energy Store and uses this to balance supply and demand on the grid, for easier integration with renewable generation.
The company anticipates that during the first 12 months of operation it can recruit a total capacity of 27MW.
It says the funding will allow it to expand operations, build out the senior management team and run a large-scale pilot with National Grid.
“By unleashing the flexibility within domestic and small business sites, we can reduce the cost and environmental impact of energy while improving the resilience of the grid,” says Graham Oakes, founder and chief executive of Upside Energy.