Britain is lagging behind the French when it comes to nuclear power generation, which could prove to be a huge boost for UK energy security in the coming years. While the nation has pledged to ramp up the industry, a key part of its energy strategy unveiled in August shows it still likely has a long way to go before it matches France’s impressive statistics. It is fair to say Paris deserves the bragging rights in this department, given that a staggering 70 percent of its electricity is powered by nuclear energy. Meanwhile, most of Britain’s is still produced by burning gas.
However, hope is not lost, given that the UK has an ambition of increasing the deployment of civil nuclear to up to 24 gigawatts by 2050, three times higher than current levels.
But this amount of nuclear power would still only represent a projected 25 percent of the projected electricity demand, with the rest likely to come from renewable sources if the UK manages to stick to its net zero pledges.
And there are plenty of projects in the pipeline, from the eight designated nuclear sites to Rolls-Royce’s revolutionary small modular reactors which are far easier to build than traditional nuclear stations. Meanwhile, the Government also launched a £120million Future Nuclear Enabling Fund in April to help to support projects and get them through the construction phase.
But according to Dr Tim Stone CBE , chairman of the Nuclear Industry Association, the UK’s nuclear energy story has been one of “neglect”, even though “our nuclear power stations are the most productive low-carbon assets in British history” and “vital bastions of our energy security”, he wrote in the Telegraph.
Noting that in the 1970s, Dr Stone explained that France and Britain both had the same nuclear capacity at 6.4GW, but the French pulled far ahead by the 1990s, with 56 GW compared to the UK’s 11.
While the French were undertaking a historic nuclear drive, the UK reportedly prioritised North Sea gas and oil, which Dr Stone appears to suggest was more of a quick fix rather than a long-term solution for energy security that would power the country securely for decades.
He wrote: “We deregulated our energy markets to take advantage of the bonanza of cheap gas, without preserving sovereignty for our country.
“We allowed the burning of gas for electricity, previously thought a foolish extravagance (which will come back to haunt us in the future when we need feedstocks for chemicals and pharmaceuticals), and ploughed money into cheap-to-build, quick-to-start gas-fired stations without considering the broader ramifications.”
Now, as the UK scrambles to decarbonise, it has been forced to use gas as a “transition” fuel as it gradually weans itself off fossil fuels by 2050. But due to the volatile nature of the market, the energy source which was once cheap for Britain has become astronomically expensive due to Russia’s war in Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s slashing of supplies to Europe.
While Britain may have some of its own North Sea supplies, this gas gets sold to customers on the integrated market, which is impacted by the supply shocks felt in Europe, in turn having a huge knock-on impact on bills.
This dependence on North Sea supplies which were once cheap, argues Dr Stone, has come back to bite us. Making this worse, ignoring nuclear in previous years has also meant we now have a system that relies too much on imported gas, exposing Britons to the volatile markets as explained above.
Another issue, Dr Stone claims, is that Britain has tried to ramp up its renewable energy capacity without expanding the complement of baseload nuclear to provide stability, which does not rely on weather conditions unlike wind or solar power.
To resolve this, Dr Stone argues in the Telegraph: “We should deploy nuclear reactors in fleets, meaning multiple units on every site we choose, and multiple sites using the same technology to capture the benefits of replication.
“There is no greater folly than building nuclear reactors one at a time, with great gaps in between. To build one at a time increases cost, time, and risk. To build in fleets, as other countries have proved, is the only proven way to cut these.”
However, while France may be ahead in the nuclear game, it is not in the best of situations currently. In fact, it has even appealed to the UK to help keep the lights on this winter after French President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Liz Truss agreed to cooperate on energy.
It came after France’s nuclear power output plummeted by 37.6 percent in August due to corrosion issues with its ageing nuclear reactors. Coming to its assistance, the UK may send electricity to France via interconnectors that link the two countries together to trade power.
Dr Jeff Hardy, Senior Research Fellow at the Grantham Institute, Imperial College London, told Express.co.uk: “The UK is interconnected via high voltage cables to several European countries, including France, Norway, Belgium and the Republic of Ireland. Interconnection is a good thing as it diversifies our supply, enhancing electricity system resilience.
“France has been suffering from nuclear power outages, which has led to a tight electricity market in France. Historically, France has supplied the UK with cheap power from its nuclear fleet. Now, it needs help, which is exactly why interconnection is a good thing for European security.”