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Life after Wylfa: What will plug the gap in UK energy mix?

Joseph Flaig

A computer-generated view of the planned Wylfa Newydd power station in Anglesey (Credit: Horizon Nuclear Power)
A computer-generated view of the planned Wylfa Newydd power station in Anglesey (Credit: Horizon Nuclear Power)

The UK’s nuclear project was dealt yet another blow today, as Hitachi confirmed the suspension of plans for the Wylfa Newydd power station in Anglesey, North Wales.

The long-rumoured decision, which also halts plans for a second power plant in Oldbury, Gloucestershire, follows Toshiba’s withdrawal from the Moorside project near Sellafield in Cumbria. Between them the three projects would have had a minimum capacity of 9.2GW, reportedly supplying 15% of electricity demand.

The government faces a huge challenge to ensure that demand is met, especially given the increasing electrification of trains and cars. What will plug the gap? Professional Engineering spoke to IMechE engineering policy adviser Matt Rooney about the options.

Renewables

Hitachi’s pull-out “leaves a huge hole in the government’s decarbonisation plans,” says Rooney. “It needs to find a lot of new low-carbon energy, whether that is nuclear or something else.”

In the short term, that could be previously under-explored renewable energy routes. “The government has more or less restricted expansion of solar power and onshore wind power, so you could relax restrictions on those,” says Rooney. “But they are obviously intermittent, so would need back-up storage as well. That could be one option in the short term, but they don’t provide the system benefits, the firm power that nuclear provides.”

China

Looking further ahead, a new Chinese reactor design going through the UK’s generic design assessment could become the basis for a “couple” of power stations, says Rooney. That option is far from uncontroversial, however, as debate around the partially Chinese-funded Hinkley Point C has shown. Many people, including PM Theresa May’s former adviser Nick Timothy, are concerned about the security risks of Chinese involvement in crucial UK infrastructure.

Despite the concerns, “the generic design process means the reactor will be safe,” says Rooney. “It is a political problem for the government, but technically there is no reason why we shouldn’t accept a Chinese design.”

Advanced modular reactors

The government is also exploring advanced modular reactors, an umbrella term for a number of different nuclear technologies defined by off-site factory manufacturing, increased flexibility and potentially low-cost electricity. Many believe modular designs are the future of nuclear, and the government is investing up to £44m in a 'feasibility and development project'.

Unfortunately, says Rooney, “they are not likely to be deployed until the 2030s so they are a bit further away. There’s already plans to develop so called generation III reactors, but then there is the more exciting generation IV which could use waste fuel or they could provide more than electricity – they could provide heat and hydrogen as well.”


The Hitachi announcement is a blow to the region, where apprentices were already training to run the Wylfa plant. “It is a big project for north Wales, which would have injected a lot of money into the economy,” says Rooney.

The news will also have much more wide-reaching effects, with a long-term impact on the UK’s energy mix. Options exist to plug the gap, but the government will have to work quickly to ensure demand is met.


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