In December 2022, the UK government announced it will invest £77m ($95.4m) to support nuclear fuel production and next-generation advanced nuclear reactors in the country. It is part of new funding to support nuclear and hydrogen innovation totalling £102m, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent impact on energy markets.
Most of the funding is earmarked for research into high temperature gas reactors (HTGRs), which could be up and running by the early 2030s, according to the government. The funding package is supposed to make the UK less reliant on energy imports in the future.
“This funding package will strengthen our energy security, by ensuring we have a safe and secure supply of domestic nuclear fuel services – while also creating more UK jobs and export opportunities,” said Energy and Climate Minister Graham Stuart in a press release when the funding was announced.
The announcement came just two weeks after ministers announced the first state backing of a nuclear project in several decades. The government will have a £700m stake in the Sizewell C project, a 3.2GW project co-owned by French state-owned energy company EDF. The investment is just a fraction of the projected total cost, officially estimated at £20bn. Research from the University of Greenwich suggests the costs could run to £35bn.
The momentum for nuclear energy is building in many countries amid energy security concerns and soaring energy prices. This month, Belgium extended the life of two nuclear reactors by ten years in a U-turn from its earlier plan to exit nuclear power by 2025. In Germany, the government has debated the country’s nuclear exit. The Netherlands has announced it will invest €5bn in nuclear energy, and more than a decade after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan is eyeing a return to nuclear power.
However, the success of all these nuclear plans is far from assured, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
“A new era for nuclear power is by no means guaranteed,” said Fatih Birol, executive director of the IEA, in a press release last year. “It will depend on governments putting in place robust policies to ensure safe and sustainable operation of nuclear plants for years to come – and to mobilise the necessary investments including in new technologies. And the nuclear industry must quickly address the issues of cost overruns and project delays that have bedevilled the construction of new plants in advanced economies.”
The only nuclear reactor currently under construction in the UK, Hinkley Point C, is experiencing delays and increasing costs. The project is expected to cost 50% more than original estimates, and to start production in 2027, two years later than planned. Almost three decades ago, Britain completed construction of its youngest nuclear reactor, Sizewell B, which will neighbour the planned Sizewell C reactor.
Nuclear energy was former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s solution to produce enough energy for the UK without Russian gas. In April 2022, Johnson announced that a new government body, Great British Nuclear, would be launched to oversee the construction of up to 24GW of new capacity by 2050.
“Our aim is to lead the world once again in a technology we pioneered, so that by 2050, up to a quarter of our power consumed in Great Britain is from nuclear,” Johnson said at the time.
The 24GW would be nearly double the most nuclear power generating capacity the UK ever had, which peaked in 1998 and 1999 with almost 13GW. Currently, UK nuclear capacity is at its lowest level in decades. Capacity will fall even further by the end of this decade, as all but one of the operational nuclear reactors will be decommissioned. With the opening of Hinkley Point C, some capacity will be added, but net capacity is set to fall to 4.5GW under current plans.
According to Simon Bowen, the country’s nuclear industry adviser, Great British Nuclear is lacking an overarching strategy – exactly what the IEA has warned about as a pitfall for nuclear.
“The piece that is missing for me at the moment is the overarching strategy,” said Bowen during a committee session with MPs last week, according to CityAM. “If we accept that we need energy security, what is the quantum [required amount] of nuclear that you need to secure that?”
To go from the current 5.9GW to 24GW by 2025 would require several new nuclear plants, both big and small. However, the construction of big new nuclear reactors has proven costly, with long construction times. Small modular reactors (SMRs) could be cheaper, but the technology is unproven. Additionally, SMRs now also face delays over government disagreements on funding.
With the UK's latest nuclear power plant taking more than a decade to build, and the wish to add several more by 2050, the government must come up with clear long-term plans and policy to support the construction of new projects.