Why nuclear energy is key to net zero

The advantages of producing power without emissions must not be overlooked.

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At last September’s conference in Liverpool, the Labour Party published an ambitious environment policy paper: The Green Transformation. While it may not have secured as much attention as it deserved, the paper included a number of proposals to facilitate and accelerate the ongoing transition to a clean energy future. To those ends, removing barriers to the development of onshore wind, upgrading and investing in energy networks and a commitment to ensuring that “60 per cent of energy comes from low-carbon or renewable sources within 12 years of coming to power” are all important elements towards that goal.

While some days, as we have noted this summer, an over-reliance on sources of electricity that are dependent upon the weather and are variable in output, cause difficulties for the power system; on others we do get to 60 per cent of electricity from low-carbon sources. Indeed, it is the combination of wind, established hydro and nuclear which enables close to three quarters of power generated in Scotland to do so without any carbon emissions during production.

Since last year, however, through the adoption of net zero as a target enshrined in legislation, with the active and vocal support from across the political divide, trade unions, community organisations and activists, it is no longer good enough to solely focus on our power needs.

In that sense, the Labour policy document was prescient; it is not 60 per cent of electricity from low-carbon sources but 60 per cent of energy – including the energy we use in transport and industrial activity.

This is a massive and significant task, and the Labour Party’s 12-year interim target of 60 per cent of energy from low-carbon power towards a 2050 net zero destination is ambitious and should focus minds on what is required to meet those desired outcomes. What is beyond dispute is that, as the International Energy Agency, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the UK’s Climate Change Committee (CCC) and reputable and detailed academic studies have demonstrated, to do so requires the utilisation of all low-carbon technologies. As the distinction between energy and electricity will have to diminish on the road to net zero, then the need to make use of all the tools in the box will determine whether net zero
is achieved.

Nuclear power has been producing low-carbon electricity to meet the needs of our homes, workplaces and public services for more than 60 years, and is currently the largest single source of clean power going into our grid. The advantages of nuclear in producing power without emissions and being able to do so regardless of the weather on a constant and reliable basis have not been lost on those seeking to design the future system. The firm power to complement more variable sources of producing electricity, better energy efficiency, use of technology to manage demand in different ways – all will be needed for the future.

As the Labour Party has made clear in parliamentary debates over the past year, the current, continuing and future role of nuclear power will be an integral part of a system designed to complete the transition to net zero. Setting the target, however, is the simple part. Far more difficult will be devising a detailed strategy and roadmap, underpinned by the necessary policies, to achieve it. For example, the UK’s carbon budgets will need to be much more ambitious than previously anticipated, no easy matter when the CCC has warned that the existing fourth and fifth carbon budgets (2023-27 and 2028-32) are unlikely to be met by current policies.

The current government promised a forthcoming Energy White Paper to set out plans for getting there, but with changes to ministers and departments in the summer, it has yet to emerge from Whitehall. However, a series of consultation documents on elements of energy policy were published – including on nuclear, carbon capture and usage, and energy storage – that could help shape the elements of future policy.

To replace our current nuclear fleet, which will mostly retire in the next ten years, the financing of power stations through a Regulated Asset Base (RAB) model will reduce the cost to consumers and help to ensure the “firm power” part of the required fourfold increase in low-carbon generation noted by the CCC can be achieved.

As welcome as the publication of a consultation document might be, and as much as it may help meet the recommendations of the National Audit Office in providing improved value for money for the country and reduced cost to the consumer, it does not of itself constitute the energy policy that is required to set out the journey to net zero by 2050.

There is a real opportunity for Labour to steal a march on the current government, not only by advocating net zero by 2050 and a 60 per cent low-carbon energy target for the 2030s, but by working with the wide range of the power sector to establish ways of getting to that end point with the maximum possible jobs and economic growth benefits that can be secured for the UK.

Two realities remain; first, such a significant transformation will require a sustained, constant and long-term attention and involvement of government if it is to be realised, and second, that there are willing, able, and passionately committed partners in industry across low-carbon technologies who both understand the scale of the challenge and want to be part of the solution. What reputable industry representatives also understand is that there is not a silver bullet or single answer to the climate challenge, and they will each need to play their part. They are a good basis for helping develop the policy document published by Labour last year into a plan of action that can be taken forward with urgency.

The year 2050 sounds a long way off; in reality it is not. To meet net zero, the change needs to be happening now and be accelerated by a coherent, constant and unyielding framework of government policy and attention. If reducing emissions to address climate change is the biggest issue for the planet, then citizens will expect government, industry and communities to be part of responding to it. It is too important an opportunity to miss.

Tom Greatrex is chief executive at the Nuclear Industry Association.