Whitehall mandarins are stalling Britain’s nuclear power revolution


When Nissan announced a big new investment in Sunderland last month, it was a resounding blow to the doomsayers who predicted Brexit would hasten the exit of manufacturing. But the investment came with a warning. Nissan only stays if energy costs are competitive.

And that’s a problem. Last week we experienced our first dunkelflaute of the winter. That’s the term used in the renewable energy industry to refer to a period of high pressure and calm that we experience in winter, when the leaves crunch beneath our feet, but the blades of the wind turbines don’t turn.

As the Telegraph reported, this event pushed our energy system close to breaking point. But if successive governments had done their job, we would have more than enough power to spare.

Firstly, we have abundant natural gas resources in Europe that lie completely untapped beneath our feet. Yet we pay the highest price for gas in Europe, and did so even before Putin’s tanks rolled into Ukraine, thanks to the design of the energy market.

The UK also pioneered the peaceful use of nuclear energy, proving it to be the cheapest, safest and least environmentally damaging energy source of all. Harwell’s trailblazing GLEEP reactor was the first anywhere in the world, creating electricity in 1947, and was still chugging away in 1990.

Nine years later, the first serious, grid scale reactor began delivering electricity at scale at Calder Hall. Deriving energy from atoms was considered far more important in rationing-era Britain than in the hydrocarbon-rich United States. Then we discovered oil too, and nuclear took a back seat. As a result, nuclear electricity generation peaked here in 1995.

To see how important these reliable old reactors are, take a look at the generation dashboard during last week’s cold snap.

We already have an energy gap because we don’t generate enough as it is to meet demand, we have to buy it, expensively, and so we are importing around 5GW via connectors from other countries.

This autumn we’ve typically imported between 3GW and 5GW of what we need. Yet the nuclear baseload generation didn’t blink, delivering a consistent 5GW.

If the coalition had proceeded on the plan set out under Labour in its 2008 white paper, when nuclear still produced almost 20pc of our electricity, we’d still have enough spare to export it.

As it is, that energy gap will widen as our existing reactors reach the end of their lives. By 2030 there will be just three working reactors left. It’s a pitiful record of neglect.

All is not lost, however. We can summon up a promising small modular reactor (SMR) from Rolls-Royce based on scaled-up submarine engine designs, one of many SMR designs on drawing boards.

The small modular reactor from Rolls Royce – one of the many designs on the drawing board
The small modular reactor from Rolls-Royce – one of the many designs on the drawing board - Rolls-Royce

They’re small, producing just under half a GW, compared to the full sized reactors we really need, but they can be put on existing sites, removing the requirement for politically unpopular pylons.

An astonishing 370,000 miles of cable must be laid or upgraded high voltage cables, according to the International Energy Agency, to deliver renewables by 2050. That’s a lot of pylons that don’t need to be there at all, as new nuclear capacity can be built where sites and infrastructure already exist.

And we keep finding new uses for our nuclear heritage, as the Adam Smith Institute reported last week, by tapping our existing radioactive stockpiles. There’s our genius for improvisation.

Yet the delays drag on. There’s little sign of urgency in Whitehall as the Department for Energy and Net Zero continues to mull over which SMR design to back. A decision will appear in the spring, the department tells me. But not one reactor will be online before 2030.

One explanation for the malaise is a familiar one. With net zero, everyone busies themselves with their little part of the puzzle, but no one is responsible for the overall picture.

If you designed a car this way, it might have three glove compartments but no engine.

David Turver, the independent energy analyst, was astonished by what he heard at the National Grid’s future energy scenario sessions last week. Per capita demand is estimated to fall by between 46pc to 60pc from 2020 levels by 2050. No one else thinks this is remotely feasible.

“No one seems to be looking at system costs,” Turver despairs.

“If you assume energy scarcity, then the chances of arriving at a plan for the grid that will meet the actual demand from a prosperous economy are vanishingly small,” says Turver. No economic impact was disclosed to FES participants, and Turver was told one may never appear. No one carries the can.

Nissan has built renewable energy on its Sunderland site, and plans even more. But its wind turbines become expensive ornaments during a dunkelflaute, and solar output is negligible in winter. It will need to buy cheap energy on the market. Only our mandarins have built an economic bomb that is going to explode unless it is defused.

One wonders how many times can a country win the lottery, but then fail to cash in its winning ticket? Britain has come up with the winning numbers so many times in its history, with enviable natural resources, and the human ingenuity to capitalise on them. Today, however, we just seem embarrassed when good fortune strikes.

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