Cash-strapped nuclear industry has no answers to Britain’s energy shortages. While the issues limiting the UK’s nuclear power plant capacity may be temporary, its broader pattern of decline is not. As power prices spike to record levels this week, one vital corner of Britain’s energy supply is failing to operate at full tilt. A nuclear reactor at Hartlepool has been floundering over an issue with a gas turbine, while another at Heysham 1 is offline after a forced outage last month. Overall, the capacity of Britain’s ageing nuclear fleet of reactors is down by about one-third (5.2GW compared to 8GW) this week amid planned maintenance and unexpected problems. It is only adding to pressure on officials attempting to balance the electricity system as gas prices soar to record highs on a supply crunch, and wind output drops as weather calms. But while the issues limiting nuclear power plant capacity may be temporary, its broader pattern of decline is not. The industry, which produces about 18pc of UK power annually, sits at a crossroads amid a rapidly evolving energy system. Most of the ageing nuclear fleet is set to shut down by the end of the decade and several within the next few years. Whether and how it will be replaced is uncertain, with industry critics accusing the Government of dragging its feet at a time when Britain needs low carbon power to fill gaps in wind and solar generation. In a bid to help the flailing sector, ministers are set to bring forward a new finance mechanism which supporters believe can help reduce the costs of large nuclear projects. Consumers would pay for the projects upfront while they are being built. This, however, is sure to be a much tougher sell this winter given the soaring wholesale costs likely to boost bills. Whitehall is aiming to bring forward at least one large-scale nuclear project this parliament, and is putting some money into developing the next generation of technology: Advanced Modular Reactors and small modular reactors (SMRs). So, does it matter if more nuclear power is not developed? Many experts say yes, given the stable role they can provide. But that doesn’t mean it should be at any cost. Energy Systems Catapult, a non-profit set up by the Government to help the sector innovate, said last June that cost reduction is key. “In the absence of credible plans to realise nuclear cost reduction, a UK net zero energy system without nuclear is possible but targeting such a system is risky [unlikely to get to net zero] and potentially expensive,” it said. As the energy system evolves, the financing case is likely to change, argues clean energy expert Michael Liebreich. “The naive answer is you need nuclear because when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, you’ll have nuclear to step in,” he says. “But the problem with that is if nuclear is competed off the grid [because it has fuel and other costs] then nuclear will only work for those few weeks a year”, harming the plant’s viability. The power source could help its own economic case by using excess heat and electricity to make hydrogen, he notes, which can then be stored for later use. Hydrogen is set to take on a much greater role in the energy system as it does not produce carbon emissions when burned.
Telegraph 15th Sept 2021 read more »