Big plans, time is money - The Nuclear Agenda

  • Posted: 11 Dec 2017

Hinkley will take at least ten years to build, in the meantime, can renewables step up and bridge the gap?

Nuclear energy is once again at the heart of the Government’s plans for electricity. Low carbon, yes, but at what cost? Hasn’t Nuclear got some legacy issues? Are we at risk of one dimensional thinking in the same way that the Government has encouraged us all to drive diesel fuelled cars to save CO2, without considering the associated harmful NOx emissions?

The Government proposed a fleet of six new nuclear power plants to be located at Hinkley Point, Sizewell, Bradwell, Moorside, Wylfa and Oldbury. The plan is to deliver a third of the UK’s power from nuclear by 2030.  Whilst I am 100% behind the low carbon agenda, and acknowledge the need for a mix of energy sources in the medium term, I’m not convinced that six new nuclear plants provide the flexibility and shape a more sustainable system needs, or represents good value for money for the UK’s “industry and hard working families”. 

Andrea Leadsom MP recently shared that “Hinkley C is only the first in a series of proposed new nuclear projects in the pipeline. It will blaze a trail for further nuclear development.” A frightening choice of words!

Let's recap on last year, plans for Hinkley C on the Somerset coast were already well underway, a Government backed fixed price for the power to be generated had been offered to the investors who were willing to build. £2.5 billion had already been spent, ground works have commenced, and a consortium of the majority French State Owned EDF and China General Nuclear (CGN) had given the go ahead to undertake this enormous infrastructure project. The Government completed the picture, having given its go-ahead for Hinkley last September and it was all back on again with the addition of 'significant new safeguards.'


Hinkley C is planning to be exporting electricity to the grid by 2025. At the heart of the project is a European Pressurised Reactor (EPR), known as the 3rd generation nuclear reactors.  Whilst I can’t claim to have an understanding of the engineering and technology involved, the track record with delivering the EPRs does cause concern.  Projects employing similar technology in China, Finland and France are all years behind build schedule (six and nine years late in the case of France and Finland respectively) and significantly over budget. We live in hope that lessons are being learnt and that we will not have to wait for many years with an open cheque book for this project to be delivered.

However, this delay creates an opportunity for the alternatives.  If the current planned energisation of Hinkley C is 2025, and we assume an optimistic five year delay to 2030, then there is a gap in UK electricity generation capacity which is required to ‘keep the lights on’. New Coal and Gas fired power plants are unlikely to be built in the interim.

This uncertainty and delay could well be an opportunity for renewables. Few energy generation technologies can be installed and energised as quickly as wind, solar and hydro, with build times as short as four months, and if planning was more straight forwards, up to two years.

If planning decisions could be made in a more objective rather than subjective way, less like a very expensive game of Battle Ships and more of a strategic and pragmatic approach, then Renewables could plug the gap. If after 15 – 20 years these giant infrastructure projects are successfully built, tested and energised, then the renewables can supplement the grid with lower cost energy or be dismantled and re-erected elsewhere in the world.


The energy system needs investment, the UK’s traditional, enormous, centralised-system coal generation plants are being retired, and despite our efforts with energy efficiency and another successful year of commissioning new renewable capacity, the National Grid’s reserve margin is shrinking.

So we agree, we need to invest, but what to invest in?

Cost estimates for the Hinkley C Nuclear project started at £6 billion, grew to £18 billion over the last 12 months and now both the National Audit Office and DECC (as was) are projecting a cost of £37 billion, even at £18 billion this is the UK’s largest infrastructure project. So as projected costs increase, is this money well spent, and what are our alternatives?

Assuming the nuclear plant will cost £18 billion, then one alternative would be to build 9,125MW of wind, solar and hydro which can generate the same amount of energy as the proposed 3GW nuclear plant.  However, there are differences between the nuclear and the renewables solution: 

  1. The cost of installing renewable generation and storage is falling rapidly, whilst it would appear that the cost of Nuclear is growing and being built within undefined timeframes;
  2. Renewable energy projects don’t generate hazardous waste and their decommissioning costs are minimal, this is not the case for Nuclear Energy;
  3. We would have some money left in the bank with the renewable option.  The Energy sector could deliver material improvements in energy efficiency and flexibility with the £700 million change after building the renewable projects.  If we consider the latest estimate of £37 billion cost of Hinkley C, then we would have over £19 billion left to invest in smart systems, storage and energy efficiency to improve the electricity system to allow it to utilise more renewable generation.


The UK’s renewable energy capacity grew to 30GW in 2015, having installed 5.4 GW of new renewable generation over the course of 2015[1] . On this basis the required renewable generation capacity to match the generation of Hinkley C could be delivered in less than two years at a lower cost. I fully appreciate that a mix of energy sources is desirable, but my question is: Is Nuclear the best use of investment in the sector, and can we not be a little smarter in our approach?  We could deliver revolutionary, structural change in terms of energy efficiency, flexibility and storage with a budget of £19 billion, ultimately requiring less generation capacity, lowering cost and reducing Green House Gas emissions.

Even as technology stands at the moment wind, solar and hydro can undercut the £101/MWh[2] which has been promised to Hinkley C by more than 25%. When savings are reaching billions of pounds, there is scope to take more innovative steps to both the demand and supply of electricity.

[1]  DECC Energy Trends 2016

[2]  The £92.50 / MWh Feed in Tariff offered to Hinkley C is in 2012 money. Adjusting the Tariff to 2016 is £101 / MWh