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A zero carbon future

Nuclear and renewables

By Peter Haslam  

The last 18 months have seen a number of very welcome policy announcements regarding the future of our everyday lives. By 2040 no new car will be powered by petrol or diesel; from 2025 no new home will be heated by fossil fuels; and the discussion on decarbonising and making existing homes more energy efficient is finally being taken seriously.

But what is going to be the beating heart of this mass move to electrify? Zero emission cars are only truly so if the source of the energy powering them has clean origins. An electric car powered by coal-generated electricity is no better than a diesel getting 30 mpg.

Nuclear currently provides around a fifth of our electricity – that’s around 40% of the low carbon generation in the UK. However, of our seven currently operating stations,
all but one are expected to come offline by 2030. While huge emphasis is being placed on the need to expand our renewable capability, and we fully support this, without a source of clean, consistent, and reliable power to the Grid, our emissions are unlikely to decrease.

Be in no doubt, we are at a pivotal moment. Overseas experience shows what can happen when a country turns away from nuclear power. Since Germany took the decision to phase out its nuclear stations and focus entirely on renewables its emissions have barely fallen, despite hundreds of billions in new investment. The reason for this is that unlike nuclear these new technologies are inter- mittent and therefore need to be backed up with large amounts of dirty lignite coal and gas.

Contrast this with the experience of Sweden and France, who in the 70s and 80s managed to rapidly decarbonise their networks by deploying nuclear power on a mass scale. Why reinvent the wheel?

The energy industry is currently preparing for the Government’s upcoming White Paper, expected to be published this summer. It is imperative that in putting this together government takes a strategic view of the UK’s long-term energy needs, in much the way that the 2007 White Paper did that led to the Climate Change Act.

The last Energy White Paper, for its day, was ambitious and as a result has brought us this far. Last year the UK went 1,856 hours without any need for coal, and the expansion of our offshore wind capability is resulting in continuously and impressively falling costs. It is our belief that the focus now should be on enabling nuclear to expand and contribute to the future energy mix to the same degree.

Government has a choice on its doorstep, it can follow in the footsteps of proven decarbonising success, or instead forge a path into the unknown. With climate change accelerating now is not the time to be taking risks.

By its very nature nuclear is an international business, and since its inception as an energy source, the UK has been a world leader in it. The research and development taking place on British soil today has the potential to bring huge benefits to the world of tomorrow.

Safeguarding the UK’s clean energy security will not be easy, and both nuclear and renewables will need to make a major contribution.

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