UK nuclear industry reflects on year of positivity amid battle for public acceptance

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The Nuclear Industry Association’s annual conference was awash with positivity on Thursday, celebrating the recent ‘wins’ that could see the rebirth of the technology in the UK.

However some old chestnuts remain, largely centring on the often negative perception surrounding the industry, a challenge its exponents are intent on overcoming.
Lord Hutton
With Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant as good as secured chairman of the Nuclear Industry Council Lord Hutton looked like a man from whom a large burden has been shifted. He enthused about the recent and growing recognition backed by pledged investment from the government who have decided that nuclear will be a vital component in the UK’s decarbonisation strategy.

EDF’s Vincent De Rivaz reminded the audience at NIAUK of the decade long battle the industry has fought to reach this point, with Chinese agreement to partner in the Hinkley project the main reason for his and Hutton’s visible relief.

In contrast with the likes of onshore wind and coal power, nuclear stands on the winners rostrum as the Exchequer acknowledged just last week in its agreement to inject significant investment into the industry highlighted in its comprehensive spending review. The government will provide more than £11bn for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) "to continue its vital work cleaning up historic nuclear sites". This includes "making significant progress" on the legacy ponds and silos at Sellafield.

“The support from government was confirmed in the announcement made through the comprehensive spending review. That funding for nuclear development is going to place the nuclear industry on a path to a sustainable long-term future. Actions do speak louder than words,” Lord Hutton told the audience of nuclear power professionals.

The peer, a former minister for energy then added that there remained ‘enormous challenges’, not least the need to continually communicate with the public in the delivery of the EU’s largest nuclear facility at Hinkley Point C.

In line with that thinking Hutton as chair of the NIC launched a concordat committing the industry to greater public engagement at the event.

Lord Hutton said: “The industry already engages in public outreach – especially in areas where they operate, or plan to build. This can be through open public consultations or school events, but as an industry we need to get the message to a wider audience; to those people who aren’t in nuclear communities but benefit from the low carbon, secure source of energy nuclear provides.

“The aim is to take the narrative beyond the media, by encouraging people to be proud of the sector and the work they do; having the confidence to talk to other parents in the school playground, or to family and friends. Helping the wider public understand what nuclear is, can help change opinion about the sector.”

The Minister of State at the Department for Energy, Andrea Leadsom, referred to 2015 as the most important year for UK energy in a generation and said the new nuclear programme has the potential to save around 40 million tonnes of CO2. She said the government was determined to meet 2050 targets ‘but keeping the lights on over that time is non-negotiable, and keeping it affordable for our customers is vital to our plans.’

“New nuclear is crucial in decarbonising power generation, keeping the lights on and maintaining safe and affordable energy for the future. Hinkley Point C is just the beginning – industry has set proposals to develop around 18 GW from nuclear – that could provide one third of our energy by the 2030s.”

When asked in Q&A about the task the industry faces in decommissioning its old fleet, Leadsom said ‘new nuclear and dealing with legacy plant go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other. Most energy can be dangerous and the important thing is to help and inform people and not pull the wool over their eyes.’

Asked to gaze into the crystal ball and say what she would envisage the energy sector in the UK looking like in the future, the minister pointed to the failed projections on oil prices to express the folly of prediction, however did say her hope was that the country assumes the leader in one specific area of nuclear power.

“New nuclear has a big part to play and I would hope in the 2030s if the UK was the world’s largest exporter of SMR technology.”

She said with coal being consigned to the past, a mix of nuclear, renewables and gas was the ideal, along with ‘other technologies we may not yet have heard of’ while also exclaiming surprise at the lack of public support for shale gas.

“What we would also like to see is much more focus in energy efficiency and demand –a lot of planning in sorting that demand flow. The electrification of vehicles could be the answer – that would lead to an increase in demand for electricity and leads to bigger demand for nuclear and storage to deal with intermittency.”


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