Anyone watching the BBC documentary on the Hinkley Point C construction project cannot fail to be impressed by the logistics challenge and the relentless progress of this mammoth engineering project. At 3.2 gigawatts of power, when it comes online by the middle of this decade, this one station will provide 7% of the UK’s electricity requirement reliably and with a carbon footprint no greater than wind or solar. Whatever your views on nuclear new build…’essential to meet our climate goals’, or ‘unaffordably expensive’… or anywhere in between… its contribution to our electricity supply is significant and those delivering it deserve our respect.
There are important developments in nuclear alongside the construction of this station. The closure of Dungeness B on 7 June, the first of the Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor (AGR) nuclear stations which together with Sizewell B provide 17.3% of our electricity, and the knowledge that the AGRs at Hunterston B and Hinkley Point B will cease generation in the next 12 months, should make us sit up. The remaining AGRs will close in the coming decade. “Hartlepool no more, Heysham no more” as the Proclaimers might have said. The nuclear decommissioning industry is now well-established and there is some progress in the long-term management of the nuclear waste streams in the form of a geological disposal facility consultation. These developments signal the urgent need for new generating capacity, and that the industry is dealing seriously with its waste.
The imperative of Net Zero has already driven the demise of coal generation and all but Uniper’s Ratcliffe plant will have ceased operating after 2022. New investment in gas-powered generation has slowed to a trickle due to fears of stranded assets and incompatibility with our Paris Treaty obligations. Onshore and offshore wind and solar continue to roll out impressively at ever cheaper cost but the system balancing costs of this volume of intermittent generation remain daunting. Sunshine on Leith alone won’t cut it. Grid scale electricity storage remains prohibitively expensive, as does carbon capture and sequestration to mitigate emissions from fossil fuel combustion. Smarter systems to manage demand will help but displacement of gas and the rush to Electric Vehicles mean the need for dispatchable generation to ensure security of supply has never been more pressing.
We need to fill that gap. We need nuclear in the mix, be it Hinkley, Sizewell C or Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). All the evidence suggests that a Net Zero 2050 without nuclear just won’t happen. That’s why it is heartening to see EDF engaging another 1,700 skilled workers (on top of the 5,500 currently on site) to drive Hinkley Point C to completion; andmitigate the impacts of the recent lockdown and other Covid restrictions on project progress.
Most infrastructure projects struggle to deliver UK content and local job creation promises but Hinkley Point C is exceeding on both measures. Around 35% of project jobs are filled by local labour, helped by EDF Energy’s impressive programme of training skilled professionals – 14,000 since 2016 - at Bridgewater College and elsewhere. Rebuilding our long-neglected skills base is a prerequisite to professionally and safely operating new nuclear power stations, whether by EDF Energy or those promoting new designs. The road to our Net Zero commitments will be testing but having the right people and the right culture is the right starting point. Without the trained people, nuclear won’t happen.
As EDF Energy might say to the Proclaimers: “I’m on my way“. Let’s all hope so. We need them and their skilled professionals to succeed. Without the trained people, nuclear won’t happen.
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Robert Armour - June 2021