Government Vows 'Practical' UK Nuclear Roadmap This Year Amid Cost Worries and Complexity
The government has unveiled its commitment to providing a "practical roadmap" by year-end, charting a course toward securing 24GW nuclear power capacity by 2050. However, amid growing concerns surrounding the fiscal feasibility, Members of Parliament have cast doubts, drawing parallels with the contentious decision to scrap the northern leg of the HS2 high-speed rail project.
In a communication addressed to Members of Parliament belonging to the Science, Innovation, and Technology Committee (SITC), the government intended to introduce a fresh Nuclear Strategic Plan. This comprehensive plan is set to elucidate the current reactor fleet's role in achieving the United Kingdom's energy objectives. Furthermore, it will empower Parliament to conduct a thorough cost-benefit analysis of major forthcoming nuclear ventures.
This announcement comes on the heels of a July report from the SITC, which had called for heightened transparency regarding the government's strategies to meet its ambitious nuclear targets. The report underscored the UK's sporadic history of scaling up nuclear power capacity, noting that no new reactors have been erected in several decades. It also sounded an alarm, predicting a significant decline in the UK's nuclear capacity by 2028, as nearly all existing plants, except for Sizewell B, are slated to reach the end of their operational lifespan.
The SITC report also expressed concerns about the uncertainty surrounding the role and scale of small modular reactors (SMRs), given the present absence of such facilities in the UK. To address these concerns, the committee called for a "clear delivery plan" from the government, replete with detailed production projections leading up to 2050 and intermediary targets for nuclear energy in 2035, 2040, and 2045.
In response, the government has reaffirmed its commitment to delivering a "practical roadmap" this autumn, outlining its aspirations for the UK's nuclear endeavors. Additionally, it has agreed to solicit feedback on alternative approaches to the market for upcoming atomic projects.
While SITC Chair and former Business Secretary Greg Clark has welcomed the government's pledge to release a new roadmap, he has raised pertinent questions about the fiscal prudence of investing in new nuclear infrastructure. Clark has parallels the recent decision to significantly scale back the government's HS2 plans, citing cost concerns that could save £36 billion. He juxtaposed this with the considerable financial commitments associated with forthcoming nuclear undertakings, including Sizewell C in Suffolk, casting a shadow of doubt over their cost-effectiveness for consumers and taxpayers alike.
"In its response to our report, the government notes that it is currently satisfied with the 'potential' of the government's preferred approach to financing the capital costs of Sizewell C to offer value for taxpayers' money," Clarke said. "It also notes that a value for money assessment will be published alongside any future investment decision by ministers."
As previously reported, the government last year agreed to invest £679m to take a 50 percent stake in Sizewell C, which developer EDF has said it expects to cost around £20bn in total.
In addition to a £170m funding boost confirmed in July, private investors were invited to formally register their interest in the planned power plant in September.
"The Committee understands that if a deal is reached, it will be after a period of confidential negotiations," Clarke continued. "But the scale of the financial commitment on behalf of future generations is such that its value for money must be able to be scrutinized by Parliament before it is a done deal. The Committee calls for the government to commit to publish the full terms of a financial deal in time to allow the National Audit Office to advise Parliament on its value for money before it is signed by Ministers."
Alison Downes of campaign group Stop Sizewell C backed Clark's calls to allow Parliament to consider value for money of significant new nuclear power investments, expressing concerns that Sizewell C has every possibility of becoming "another HS2" - "a big hole in the government's balance sheet with its costs and schedule out of control."
"Not only should Ministers make their Value for Money assessment available for scrutiny ahead of contracts being signed, they should come clean about the current holes in the project, including its water supply and design of its coastal defenses," she said.
However, a Department for Energy and Net Zero spokesperson insisted consumer interests were at the heart of its nuclear vision, which it said would work alongside renewables to drive down consumers' bills and boost economic growth.
"As set out in our response to the Committee's report, we are fully committed to ensuring our nuclear plans offer value of money for the taxpayer and to publishing a full assessment at the point of any final investment decision," the spokesperson said.