Retiring nuclear power stations in Britain would be ‘an environmental and economic catastrophe of unprecedented scale,’ according to a Labour MP.
Charlotte Nichols, MP for Warrington North, urged the government to intervene as the retirement of the nuclear fleet jeopardises climate objectives.
The comments follow last week’s report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which warned that serious changes would have to be made to avert a climate catastrophe.
The UK is on course to close all but one of its existing plants by 2030 as it struggles to find funding for replacements.
Experts predicted in June that this would put Britain off track to reach its climate pledges.
Ms Nichols, who co-chairs the Nuclear Energy APPG, told South West Londoner: “The idea that we could meet our energy commitments without nuclear is for the birds.
“If a plan to replace the existing fleet isn’t agreed by the end of the year, the industry is going to reach a crisis point.
“If you were to close these nuclear power stations tomorrow, you wouldn’t be able to replace that capacity with wind or solar alone. You would end up replacing it with gas which would be a huge step backwards from where we are at the moment.
“The inertia of delaying certain decisions is as bad as not doing anything.”
The government has not committed to the investment in nuclear energy recommended by the Climate Change Committee (CCC), which it set up in 2008 to advise on emissions targets.
Nuclear lobbyists are pushing for a ‘Regulated Asset Based’ model of financing, which would offer investors financial incentives to front the money needed for expensive plant building projects.
The model is already used to encourage innovation in other utility sectors and helped to finance the building of the Thames Tideway Tunnel, set to open in 2025.
A spokesperson for the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA), the trade association for the civil nuclear industry in the UK, said: “All the academic institutions and the CCC say that we need nuclear for a green transition.
“The problem is that investors need to see there is a guaranteed return during that initial period of construction. Nuclear projects have a peculiar expense structure. You spend almost all your money upfront over a number of years to get the station built, and then it’s very cheap to run.
“Without the government creating a risk-sharing mechanism, the costs are higher than they need to be. We are hopeful that during the autumn we’ll get more progress.
“If we don’t have nuclear, we won’t hit our climate goals and we won’t hit net zero. If these stations go without replacement, we’ll have job losses, skill losses and the climate ambitions will go the same way.”
The United Kingdom developed the world’s first civil nuclear energy programme in 1956 and faces retirement of its ageing fleet sooner than other countries.
Nuclear power currently provides 21% of the nation’s electricity supply.
Around Europe, countries retiring their stations have increased reliance on imported gas to top up renewable sources of energy like wind and solar power.
But across the renewable energy sector, industry leaders also caution that policy does not do enough to encourage the innovation and investment needed for growth.
Mairi Wickett, co-founder of Witt Energy, said: “The government’s Innovate UK programme has been incredibly good to us but the biggest problem is that in the UK we analyse change to death.
“Venture capitalists are very risk-averse and other countries are more receptive to emerging technologies.”
This year, Witt won a £350k contract with the Ministry of Defence for their work in green energy, having developed a flywheel that can harvest energy in remote and inaccessible environments.
“I would love somebody here to say ‘instead of giving a big chunk of money to one technology, let’s share it out between 20 young, dynamic, entrepreneurial companies.’
“The reality is that if the UK were attentive to all technologies, we would have been able to advance to different sizes of systems and tackle different problems.”
Ahead of November’s UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow, energy providers will make their case for better and wider funding, urging the government to build the systems needed for rapid decarbonisation.
Aiming to cut emissions by 78% by 2035, Britain will have to offer new incentives for investors across its energy sector if it is to reach its targets.
However, a spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “Nuclear power remains an important and reliable source of clean electricity, for times when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine.
“Alongside renewables, it will continue to support the delivery of a low cost energy system, while meeting our ambitious climate change goals, a position shared by the independent Committee on Climate Change.”