Jeremy Hunt’s designation in his spring budget of nuclear as a “sustainable” electricity source has provoked anger from environmental campaigners.
The chancellor made the re-classification explicit yesterday in order to attract private capital. His words reversed a Treasury decision taken in 2021 to exclude nuclear from public finance support for green energy.
Hunt confirmed that a body called Great British Nuclear will be set up with powers to select sites for new nuclear plants, and foster the technology’s supply chain.
The government’s goal is 24 GW of nuclear capacity this decade, en route to providing 25% of UK electricity by 2050. Last year nuclear yielded 16%.
In his first, emergency budget in November Hunt agreed £700 million of pump-priming state support for Sizewell C, the UK’s latest mega project.
Yesterday the chancellor announced an international competition to assess competitive SMRs – small & medium reactors, derived from submarine nuclear power plants. Government co-funding will result next year, the chancellor promised, if commercially viable offerings emerge.
Potential investors in nuclear have repeatedly told ministers that the technology’s long-term costs in managing waste, plus stratospheric capital costs, keep their cheque books shut.
Hoping to open them, energy secretary Grant Shapps will next week launch a Green Finance Strategy, including nuclear. Carbon Capture Use and Storage, backed by the chancellor yesterday with a £20 billion package targeting Merseyside, north Wales and the East Coast, will also feature.
Hinkley Point C is due to generate in 2027. But four out of five plants in the UK’s ageing nuclear fleet will close the following year, by which time national capacity will – on current projections – have dropped to a mere 4.46GW.
Operator EDF signalled in January two-year extensions until March 2026 for its Heysham 1 and Hartlepool plants. When acquired by the French company in 2009, both were scheduled for closure in 2014.
For the Green Party, MP Caroline Lucas tweeted that Hunt’s neglect of renewables in favour of nuclear was ‘nonsensical decision-making’.
“Rebranding nuclear as “environmentally sustainable” doesn’t make it so – and for an industry that still has no idea how to safely dispose of waste that remains radioactive for centuries to come is beyond ludicrous”, she tweeted.
“Nuclear white elephants are too slow, too expensive & too dangerous”, the Brighton MP added.
Last year, as it unveiled plans to green the EU’s grids, the European Commission made the same declaration as Hunt’s in favour of nuclear’s ‘sustainable’ financial status. Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and WWF responded with legal action, still before the courts.
Helen Clarkson, CEO of the Climate Group called Hunt’s budget “a missed opportunity”. “The US, EU and China are overpowering the UK in the race to decarbonise, and unfortunately, this Budget falls short of offering a plan to compete for green investment.
“While Chancellor Hunt nodded to the UK’s past achievements on expanding offshore wind and rooftop solar”, Clarkson added, “this Spring Budget overlooks cheap and clean renewable energy, and instead rebrands nuclear as ‘environmentally sustainable’ and throws cash at carbon-capture technology”.
Tom Greatrex, head of the Nuclear industry Association, welcomed Hunt’s classification as “a huge step forward for UK energy security and Net Zero.
Nuclear’s inclusion is a vital move, following the example set by other leading nuclear nations, and will drive crucial investment into new projects, making it cheaper and easier to finance new reactors”.
“The launch of Great British Nuclear…will make nuclear deployment much more efficient and give the supply chain a clear pipeline to work from,” added the industry lobbyist.
“The SMR selection will put us back in the global race, creating opportunities for home-grown technology and others to bring jobs and investment to the UK and helping us capitalise on export opportunities in a massive global market.
“We look forward to working with Great British Nuclear on delivering a fleet of large and small scale stations to make us a clean energy powerhouse of the twenty-first century.”
It is high time that green campaigners embrace nuclear power as an essential part of the UK’s energy mix to comply with our law that requires our net emission of fossil carbon to stop by 2050. Nuclear power is not only the safest form of energy generation when you consider the accident statistics of all power generation, but it is baseline power that can run 24/7 unlike wind and solar, Campaigning against nuclear power is a campaign that will prevent the UK from ending net emissions of fossil carbon in time before the planet faces an existential threat to life as temperatures continue to rise out of control. The cost of the nuclear technology used at Hinkley Point C requires cooling of the reactor with water at around 350C and pressures over 2,200 psi that require very expensive equipment, when using molten salt or metal to do the same thing would substantially reduce the costs of construction. Such technology is proven and power stations using low pressure reactors are now being constructed in other parts of the world.