How the Industrial Strategy can support UK nuclear

One industry which could benefit substantially from an industrial strategy is nuclear. In 1956 Britain led the world with the opening of Calder Hall, the first commercial civil nuclear power station in the world. The absence of any consistent policy towards nuclear during the next half century, let alone a coherent strategy, squandered that advantage despite Britain’s huge and internationally respected scientific, academic and industrial expertise.

The opportunity for Britain to remain a leader in the global nuclear industry lasted until the 1980s when plans were made for the construction of four PWRs. In the event only one of these, Sizewell B, was built before the UK nuclear programme was abandoned in favour of the dash for gas. This decision was influenced by the availability of plentiful supplies of North Sea gas and taken before the overriding need to decarbonise the electricity generation industry was fully understood.

At the start of the new century the Blair government, despite rightly committing to ambitious cuts in carbon emissions, initially maintained its predecessor’s opposition to new nuclear build. Only in 2006 was the vital role of nuclear in addressing climate change finally recognised by Ministers. By then the opportunity for a UK developed nuclear technology to be commercialised had passed.

Today however ,there is a new chance to revive Britain’s nuclear role. Such a revival, at a time when bodies like the International Energy Agency have underlined the potential for nuclear, would deliver significant economic benefits in terms of jobs, and possibly in due course exports too.

Importantly, the right industrial strategy can enable this opportunity to be seized regardless of either how quickly or on what terms Brexit takes place. This strategy should have three main strands.

Firstly, expansion of the nuclear supply chain should be an explicit priority. To ensure that this is achieved the government should engage now with both the nuclear developers and with British businesses to identify which areas of the supply chain for new nuclear plant can best be sourced within the UK.

This engagement will involve discussions with Horizon and NuGen. Since lead times are long, consultation with CGN on this subject should also commence following the recent confirmation that the Hualong One reactor is to go through the generic design assessment process. Toshiba’s financial difficulties and the consequent possibility of Korean participation in NuGen means that consultation with Kepco may also be appropriate.

Secondly, the strategy should aim to develop and exploit the considerable British expertise in nuclear decommissioning and waste. This will require cooperation with the scientific and academic communities as well as with business. It will be helped by confirmation that no restrictions will be placed on foreign workers coming to Britain for this purpose.

Thirdly, the strategy must include measures to ensure the provision of a workforce whose education and skill sets equip them for the opportunities which a revived new build programme, and the substantial decommissioning work already in the pipeline, both create.

Government is already engaged in some of this work and the early indications are that technical education will be addressed directly in this week’s Green Paper. But the nuclear industry would receive a valuable boost if its importance was recognised in the strategy.

Nuclear vendors from China, Korea and Russia would all welcome the imprimatur which greater involvement in the UK would bestow. British consumers might benefit from lower electricity prices, greater energy security and a smoother path to a low carbon economy. Without direct engagement by government however, the economic benefits which can be captured from a nuclear revival may slip through Britain’s fingers.