Why you, might ask, do we need nuclear-generated electricity? Well, in part, it’s the answer to the question how does the nation generate enough carbon-free electricity when the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining?
And that’s not a hypothetical question: it happened only a few weeks ago when the wind stopped blowing and the turbines stopped turning, reducing the generation of renewable energy to around 25 per cent of their usual output, forcing the nation to revert to fossil fueled generation.
It also answers the question on security and cost of our energy supply, a subject that is now exercising the minds of the mandarins and ministers in Whitehall.
The International Energy Agency and Nuclear Energy Agency argue that global nuclear capacity will need to double by 2050 to meet aggressive climate targets and increasing demand for energy brought about by the electrification of transport. This implies a global requirement of 400 GW of new nuclear capacity and another 200 GW to replace retiring units.
But we need to act fast. Successive governments have delayed crucial decisions on developing small, lower cost reactors to replace the large reactors that will be soon be decommissioned: making it all the more difficult to keep the lights on while hitting our net zero ambitions.
I can recall how, six years ago, Jose Reyes, the engineer who designed the NuScale 50 MWe nuclear reactor, visited the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Rotherham and convincingly explained to the assembled bright young engineers how 12 of these factory-built reactors could produce the power equivalent to half the capacity of the Sizewell B Reactor.
All this at a significantly reduced energy cost and with an efficient on-site assembly. This is a crucial difference. Building one-off mega power stations is hugely costly. So costly that the biggest expense is the interest on the loan payments. And there is no learning curve in their construction. Factory-built units, by contrast, enable producers to benefit for the efficiency gains of repeat processes.
Modular energy technologies such as gas turbines and solar panels, where multiple identical units are built, show a learning curve that leads to unit costs falling by 35–45 per cent. Even with more modest learning rates of 10–20 per cent, SMRs would have cost considerable less than large reactors.
This is what excited Jose and his audience. They saw how Sheffield’s unparalleled skills in producing some of the world’s most complex heavy plant and machinery made it the ideal place to manufacture these long delayed SMRs.
Today the national energy deficit – with withdrawal of fossil fuel generation and closure of old nuclear plants – threatens the closure of factories and a winter of discontent as domestic electricity bills soar and the looming prospect of the lights going out.
Whitehall’s response is to commission yet another feasibility report for Ministers to add to the heap of reports that have been commissioned over the last 11 years, only to be ignored.
Let me outline the Sheffield Solution. A solution that guarantees Sheffield-built SMRs could be generating electricity by 2030 for factories and homes at almost half the strike price agreed with EDF for electricity produced at the yet-to-be completed Hinckley C.
In the US, all the regulatory permissions have been granted, and production is under way to on the very reactor that Jose Reyes graphically explained to the young engineers in Sheffield six years ago. That same reactor will be generating clean energy in the US by 2029 at an estimated cost of $58/MWh – competitive with renewables.
Never has the time been better, or the cause more pressing. The Government’s decision to invest £400m in Sheffield Foregemasters clearly recognised it as a strategic national asset. Now it the time to make that asset earn its keep, as Forgemasters is the only company in the UK that can produce and machine the heavy forgings and castings required for components for SMRs.
The PM can achieve two of his Government’s biggest and boldest ambitions: to level up the country by bringing the pride of advanced manufacturing back to the neglected towns and cities of the North; and by making the UK the undisputed global leader in science and engineering-based green energy production, exported around the world.
So, Boris, in that old Yorkshire saying, Stop b***erin’ abaht ’n’ ger on wi’ it!
Richard Caborn is a former Labour MP for Sheffield Central who was Trade Minister from 1999 to 2021.
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