The government has moved swiftly to deny a BBC report today, 4 November, that it was considering to review whether or not to continue to invest in the Sizewell C nuclear plant. A government official had told the broadcaster that all major projects were under review, including the plant, which is under construction on the Suffolk coast and will provide power to over six million homes when it is operational in the 2030s.
When the initial report was published it was notable that Adrian Ramsay, co-leader of the Green Party, immediately tweeted that he was “pleased” to see the review taking place, arguing that Sizewell would take too long to complete and that renewables are the way forward.
However, he forgets that renewables cannot be built immediately either. In France the average offshore wind farm takes eight to ten years to build. Ramsay’s statement that nuclear energy is a “burden” goes against the scientific consensus that nuclear energy is needed to help the world give up fossil fuels. Renewables also have an environmental impact that people prefer to ignore.
The two most common arguments against nuclear energy that I encounter in my work as a science communicator are how much nuclear power plants cost, and how long they take to build. Build time is a valid concern, as we do need to transition to clean energy sooner rather than later. However, this is a political issue rather than a technological one; in some countries new reactors are built in as little as three years, and the average build time is seven and a half years. In fact, research shows that standardisation – using the same workers to build the same reactor models again and again – brings down costs and build time.
When it comes to cost, for one thing no cost is too high to tackle the climate emergency and prevent the millions of deaths that occur every year due to air pollution from fossil fuels (not to mention the other environmental costs of fossil fuels). There are also ways to make nuclear more cost effective, and we should implement them.
Above all, stalling on nuclear projects doesn’t help. As with all major construction projects, investors want to know that they will be completed. The UK government has gone back and forth on nuclear for decades. Had more reactors been signed off a decade ago, we wouldn’t be in an energy crisis right now, and facing a winter of planned blackouts.
Blackouts are dangerous; people already die in cold winters in England and Wales (usually vulnerable people and those who live in deprived areas). Now, as energy prices rise, leading to electricity bills quadrupling for some households and businesses, casualties can only increase.
Meanwhile there is little mention of the workers who will lose their jobs if Sizewell doesn’t go ahead, and the valuable skills that will be lost with them. Nuclear workers are climate heroes; without them, we cannot dig ourselves out of the multiple crises we currently face.
If we really want to bring down energy bills in the long run, tackle greenhouse emissions and reduce our reliance on Russian gas imports, then we need to stop stalling and commit to getting these reactors built.
[See also: How sustainable is nuclear energy?]