The UK government has announced this morning (11 January) its largest expansion of nuclear power since 1953.
The expansion will use the UK’s Civil Nuclear Roadmap to identify the future direction of its domestic industry, including exploring building a major new power station and investing in advanced nuclear fuel production.
The government aims to use measures such as smarter regulation to achieve its pre-determined ambition of reaching 24GW nuclear power production by 2050, announced in early 2022 as part of the British Energy Security Strategy.
The roadmap also includes a government ambition to secure between 3GW and 7GW worth of investment decisions every five years from 2030 to 2044 on new nuclear projects.
One of these could be the new GW-scale power plant, similar in size to that of EDF Energy site Sizewell B based in Suffolk, the government are currently investigating next steps for.
The government has promised £10 million to progressing the domestic industry, targeted at developing sites and skills so the nation can have a reliable supply of nuclear fuel in the long term.
Two new consultations have also been announced, one on a new approach to siting future nuclear power stations and another on supporting the sector and encouraging private investment to roll out advanced nuclear projects.
This expansion purposefully coincides with the government’s recent £300 million investment in UK production of high-assay low enriched uranium (HALEU), a nuclear fuel which presently is exclusively commercially produced in Russia.
Production of HALEU, as well as furthering the UK’s low-carbon industry, reduces the nation’s dependence on Russia for fuel resources.
This is part of a concentrated, political effort by the UK government to autonomise itself from Russia, something the government confirmed is a reaction to Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.
The UK will be the first European country to launch a HALEU programme, beginning with a production hub based in North West England aiming to be operational by the early 2030s.
Secretary of state for energy security and net zero, Claire Coutinho, said: “We stood up to Putin on oil and gas and financial markets, we won’t let him hold us to ransom on nuclear fuel. Britain gave the world its first operational nuclear power plant, and now we will be the first nation in Europe outside of Russia to produce advanced nuclear fuel.”
Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, said: “Nuclear is the perfect antidote to the energy challenges facing Britain – it’s green, cheaper in the long term and will ensure the UK’s energy security for the long-term. This will ensure our future energy security and create the jobs and skills we need to level up the country and grow our economy.”
The building blocks for the UK’s nuclear expansion
Over the past year leading up to this expansion, the UK government were laying the foundation for domestic nuclear energy industry growth.
This includes the launch of new government trade body, Great British Nuclear (GBN), which specifically encourages the development of small module reactors (SMRs) on the road to 24GW nuclear power production by 2050.
Unlike conventional nuclear reactors that are built on site, SMRs are smaller, can be made in factories, and could transform how power stations are built by making construction faster and less expensive.
On top of the £310 million most recently invested, in July 2023 the UK government announced £157 million in grants to bolster the development of nuclear projects across the country.
In fact, as of September 2023, the total amount of government funding dedicated to UK nuclear energy was £1.2 billion; with the most recent addition, this number now comes to £1.5 billion.
Many industry players, however, have spoken out against further investment into nuclear energy, suggesting the money instead be allocated to full renewable energy sources, such as wind or solar.
As previously quoted by Current+, Jess Ralston, head of energy at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU), said: “Despite slight cost increases given current inflation levels, British renewables will remain much cheaper than both gas and nuclear.
“There are questions over whether government has taken its eye off the ball for the current Contracts for Difference (CfD) auction round for wind farms, imposing too tight restrictions and so limiting the projects that might get built.”