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Risk of fossil fuel fightback after latest blow to UK's nuclear energy in Moorside

Joseph Flaig

An artist's impression of the Moorside power station (Credit: NuGeneration)
An artist's impression of the Moorside power station (Credit: NuGeneration)

Fossil fuels could claw back more of the UK energy mix after the latest setback to new nuclear projects and ongoing decommissioning of ageing infrastructure, an expert has warned.

Japanese technology and engineering giant Toshiba announced its withdrawal from the Moorside nuclear power station project near Sellafield in Cumbria today (8 November). The plant could have generated 7% of the UK’s electricity requirement by 2025, and was forecast to create between 14,000 and 21,000 UK jobs.

Toshiba wholly owned the development company behind the project, NuGen. The company negotiated with potential new owners for one-and-a-half years, but said this morning that “it has not been possible to successfully conclude those negotiations.”

In 2017, fossil fuels generated less than 60% of electricity used in the UK, thanks largely to a sharp decline in the use of heavily-polluting coal and a gradual increase in renewable power to about 23.4%. Nuclear was unchanged on 23.6% – but with delays at major projects such as Hinkley Point C, plans to decommission almost half of the nuclear capacity by 2025 thanks to ageing infrastructure and now Toshiba’s withdrawal from Moorside, fossil fuel use might increase, said Matt Rooney, engineering policy adviser at the IMechE.

“I think there is a risk of this,” he told Professional Engineering. “We are lucky in the UK that coal has gone off the system but I think we are now going to be dependent on gas… when the wind doesn’t blow and the Sun doesn’t shine. If you don’t have new nuclear, you might have more carbon emissions thanks to a dependence on gas.”

Nuclear energy is considered a ‘low-carbon’ energy source as far less carbon dioxide is emitted from the energy generation process compared to fossil fuels.

“We really need one or two nuclear power stations to hit the legally binding low-carbon targets under the Climate Change Act,” said Rooney. “[Nuclear] provides large amounts of low-carbon electricity in big lumps that are dispatchable, that is not dependent on the weather. But the problem is large nuclear is very capital intensive, it has large upfront costs.”

“Nuclear is expensive for the same reason that other large engineering activities like electrification of the railways is expensive, we simply don’t do enough of it,” said IMechE head of engineering Dr Jen Baxter. “This means that between each build there can be a long gap and we have to generate skills and a supply chain all over again. In order for costs to come down we need more nuclear projects happening at the same time.”

She added: “Nuclear is a very effective way to produce low-carbon power and with the recent IPPC report we should be looking carefully at more nuclear to fill power, heat and transport needs with low emissions.”

The Government has considered “innovative” ways of funding new projects, said Rooney, including the Regulated Asset Base where the public takes on some of the construction risk but the overall cost is reduced. If another company is interested in building a nuclear power station at Moorside, the Government could help in some way by lowering the finance cost, he added.

‘New power station remains vital’

Energy union GMB called Toshiba’s withdrawal “sad but predictable.”

“In the wreckage that passes for a joined up UK energy policy, the question now is whether government has finally learned the mistakes of Moorside,” said national secretary Justin Bowden.  

"A new nuclear power station in West Cumbria remains vital for the UK’s future energy security and requires urgent action: the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority must be immediately given a role for nuclear development and tasked with developing a small modular nuclear reactor on site, tapping into the wealth of nuclear experience and expertise in the area and ensuring we have security of supply in years to come.”

Peter Haslam, head of policy at the Nuclear Industry Association, told Professional Engineering: “The Moorside site in Cumbria remains a site designated by government for nuclear new build and has huge local support. A lot of work has already taken place at Moorside and it’s important this isn’t wasted. It is vital government enables the build of new nuclear on the site, for the sake of the energy security of the UK and for the local economy in Cumbria.

“Nuclear currently provides 21% of the UK’s electricity mix – that’s around 40% of low-carbon electricity in the UK. With the majority of nuclear power to retire before 2030, it’s important this capacity is replaced, or we run the risk of having to revert back to fossil fuels. There’s an urgent need for new nuclear to be built quickly, and the Moorside site has a key role to play in this.”

A spokeswoman for the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy said the Government is "looking at the viability" of Regulated Asset Base financing for future nuclear projects. She added: "The Moorside site will revert to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA). Government will consider the future of the site with the NDA to look at how it might best be used in the future."

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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