The Times, 5 October 2020

Will we go for Sizewell C nuclear option to meet zero-carbon goals?If ministers are to provide clean, reliable energy they must make a decision on the project soon

Emily Gosden, Energy EditorMonday October 05 2020, 12.01am, The Times

To its supporters, it’s a crucial step to meeting Britain’s net-zero emissions goals, providing reliable low-carbon power and creating thousands of jobs. To its critics, it’s an outdated, risky technology that will push up energy bills and blight the landscape. The proposed Sizewell C nuclear plant has long provoked debate in the energy industry — but what does the government think? That’s the £20 billion question.

The twin-reactor plant in Suffolk proposed by France’s EDF could generate 3.2 gigawatts of electricity, enough to provide 7 per cent of Britain’s needs. It would be a sister station to Hinkley Point C, which EDF is building with the Chinese state group CGN in Somerset, and which the government said in 2016 should be the “first of a wave of new nuclear plants”.

Yet of five projects that were proposed to follow Hinkley, three — in Cumbria, Anglesey and Gloucestershire — have been abandoned by their Japanese developers, while CGN’s hopes of building its own reactor in Essex look politically highly unlikely amid hostility to China. That leaves the £20 billion Sizewell plant as the test case for whether the government still wants nuclear, and what it’s prepared to do to make it happen.

“What we need to see is a strong and unambiguous statement of the need for new nuclear to be able to meet the net-zero target,” Tom Greatrex, chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association, says. He hopes an energy white paper, delayed by more than a year and now promised this autumn, will include a clear indication of how much nuclear is wanted. “Ministers haven’t said in recent times anything about the proportions of power coming from which zero-emission sources. There has to be a greater sense of direction.”

As the costs of wind, solar and batteries have fallen, critics have questioned whether nuclear is really needed. The National Infrastructure Commission advised the government in 2018 that it should commit to only one more nuclear plant by 2025 since renewables may prove to be cheaper.

Mr Greatrex insists this view is mistaken and does not reflect the requirements of Britain’s net-zero target, set last year. The Committee on Climate Change, the official advisers on that goal, say that power demand may double by 2050 and 38 per cent of it may need to be met by firm low-carbon power: either nuclear, or gas plants fitted with carbon capture technology.

Dermot Nolan, who led the energy regulator Ofgem until January, says that he believes “we probably won’t know until 2040 or 2050 if we were right to do nuclear” but that to minimise risks, “it is better to develop some nuclear at this point”. He adds: “I think there’s sufficient uncertainty about overall power demand, and sufficient uncertainty about whether a 100 per cent renewable mix will be lower or higher cost, that it’s just not putting all your eggs in one basket.”

The limited indications are that the government agrees: the business department says that “nuclear power will play a key role in the UK’s future energy mix as we transition to a low-carbon economy”. But if they do want new nuclear, ministers will need to decide how to fund it. “The current financing mechanism won’t work,” Mr Greatrex says.

At Hinkley, state-backed EDF and the Chinese are shouldering the decade-long construction costs and risks. EDF has made clear that it cannot afford to do the same for Sizewell and needs to bring in a majority of private investors. And at Hinkley, the return on investment comes through a contract guaranteeing consumers will pay £92.50 per megawatt-hour (MWh) for its electricity — more than double the price awarded to recent offshore wind projects, and politically unrepeatable.