Cheaper nuclear at the heart of UK’s deep decarbonisation says report

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Innovation agency Energy Systems Catapult has released a new report stating that committing to a further 10GW of new nuclear beyond Hinkley Point C is a low regrets option for the UK as it targets a Net Zero economy.

However, costs need to fall significantly if the technology is to fulfil its long-term potential.

The report strengthens the case that a small modular light water reactor (SMR) programme should proceed, similarly focused on the potential for cost-reduction. SMR designs that can deliver cogeneration of heat and power are worth particular attention.

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While wind, in particular offshore wind, now seems the key technology for decarbonising power in the coming decades, trying to meet Net Zero without any new nuclear would put the target at-risk unnecessarily and potentially make the shift to a low carbon economy more expensive, the report found.

The analysis also found Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is also an important technology, partly because of its ability to be used in multiple applications ” including hydrogen production, while bioenergy with CCS could counter the residual emissions from aviation and livestock.

The Nuclear for Net Zero report provides a techno-economic assessment of the potential roles and contribution of nuclear energy in supporting a range of decarbonisation pathways modelled in the recent Innovating to Net Zero report, including:

  • An expanded role for new Hinkley Point C-type Generation III+ nuclear in power generation;
  • Advanced Gen IV high-temperature nuclear plants coupled with hydrogen production technology ” able to switch between power generation and efficient hydrogen to supply industry, plus heavy road transport and marine freight;
  • SMR deployed with city-scale District Heating Networks ” to supply cost-effective low carbon heat for urban homes and businesses.

Energy Systems Catapult nuclear practice manager, Mike Middleton said: “Nuclear doesn’t need to be expensive if we take the right approach. Achieving Net Zero without nuclear is possible but targeting such a system looks unnecessarily risky, to the point of being unlikely to achieve the end result, and potentially expensive.

“There are no easy paths to get the entire UK economy to Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050, but there is a credible path available to realise significant nuclear cost reduction delivering potentially lower costs and risks associated with achieving UK Net Zero.

“Firstly, a commitment to a programme of capacity rather than individual unconnected projects. Secondly, capitalising on the benefits from deploying units in an uninterrupted construction sequence, with multiple units on the same site where possible. Provided that costs reduce in line with the analysis we have reported, the deployment decision regarding new large nuclear is not whether to start, but when to stop.”

The potential policy approach for nuclear suggested by this new analysis, includes:

  • Committing now to around 10 GWe of additional new Gen III+ reactor capacity beyond Hinkley Point C’s 3.2 GWe;
  • Over the next 5 years in parallel, support stage-gated development programmes for UK deployment of SMR and advanced Gen IV reactors.

Coupled with assessing the progress of alternative low carbon energy technology development, this would provide a clearer indication of the likelihood of realising the benefits from these two technologies to support periodic policy reviews between 2025 to 2035, which would govern the shape of a 2050 UK Net Zero energy system.

If nuclear is able to fulfil its cost reduction potential and contribute to the challenges of decarbonising heat and hydrogen, around 50 GWe of nuclear may be needed by 2050. However, there is significant uncertainty about the mix within a 50 GWe nuclear portfolio, underlining the importance of stage-gated approaches for both light-water SMRs and advanced Gen IV reactors.

The report has been welcomed by the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) as it clearly shows the key role nuclear can play in helping the UK meet its climate change goals.

NIA’s Chief Executive, Tom Greatrex, says: “Reaching net zero by 2050 is a massive national endeavour ” and this detailed, expert report demonstrates that all but removing polluting gas will need low carbon sources of power to massively expand. Nuclear is a significant and integral part of that mix for the future.

“Costs can be reduced through repeat build and new construction techniques ” but also, and most significantly, with a different approach to financing. It is imperative the government get on and conclude their review of this, so the ‘no regrets’ option highlighted by the Energy Systems Catapult can make progress.

“With thousands of jobs in construction, operation and the supply chain, getting the new fleet of nuclear power stations this report shows are needed underway can also boost the economy at a critical time, while also helping get closer to the net zero ambition. There is no time to lose.”

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