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UK NIC backs alternatives to nuclear via Renew Extra Weekly

The UK Government asked the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) for its advice on whether an additional new nuclear plant, beyond the proposed Sizewell C project, was needed to deliver the UK’s sixth Carbon (reduction) Budget, due in 2035. In response, the NIC said no, it was not needed or viable for 2035, since new nuclear was slow to deploy. It asserted that ‘it is highly unlikely that a new large scale nuclear plant is deliverable in the next 15 years; trying and failing would jeopardise delivery of the sixth Carbon Budget’. Instead it backed renewables, hydrogen and low/negative carbon technology- which is said could be deployed faster.

It noted that ‘since 1990, nuclear projects have faced significant delays all around the world. Even just in Europe around half of all plants have faced at least a 50% delay in construction, and 1 in 4 plants have faced at least a 90% delay in construction’. So it said that ‘any nuclear project schedule estimate should be expected to take at least 50% longer than planned. If a new project began development next year and took the same amount of time as the Hinkley Point C project is expected to take to complete, it would not come online until at least the mid 2040s’. So that put it well outside the 2035 timeframe.

Small Modular/advanced reactors might be a faster option, but the NIC said ‘relying on significant capacity being deployed before 2035 would be risky’. It pointed out that ‘no SMR has gone through the Generic Design Assessment process and some developer proposals are conditional on government support to progress project development. There are no SMRs in operation in countries similar to the UK. To fill the same capacity gap illustrated in the BEIS modelling, at least six SMRs would be needed by 2035, if not more. This would require compressing the normal delivery timeline and doing things in parallel rather than in sequence, significantly increasing the risk of delays. Delivery success will also be dependent on the capability of the developer.’

Alternatives  likely to be faster 

Instead of these nuclear options, for delivery within the timeframe to 2035, it backed ‘renewables with a combination of gas power plants with carbon capture and storage, hydrogen fired gas plants and bioenergy with carbon capture & storage’. It said ‘these alternatives are more likely to be deliverable at scale in the next 15 years’. 

In support of the proposed CCS/BECCS/hydrogen options it said ‘whilst none of these technologies have been deployed at scale in the UK, there are pilot or commercial projects deployed elsewhere in the world. And the engineering of each is fundamentally sound. These technologies are smaller and more modular, exactly the type of technology the UK has experience delivering over short timescales.’

It went on ‘Deploying new technologies at scale will never be risk free. But the best way government can mitigate this risk is to act swiftly and finalise the policy frameworks under development that can facilitate the investment needed’ And it adds while ‘some of these technologies, in particular gas power plants with carbon capture and storage, rely on natural gas…these technologies would play a much smaller role in the power system in 2035 than unabated gas plants do today. And as the economy as a whole decarbonises, the county’s overall dependence on natural gas will fall dramatically’. 

It stressed that CCS/hydrogen options add policy flexibility, unlike nuclear, and noted that ‘the inclusion of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) in the power system in 2035 would significantly increase the number of pathways to delivering a near zero carbon power system’. It suggested that, ‘as BECCS would likely generate baseload power it can be considered a like for like alternative to nuclear. Its inclusion in the power sector therefore significantly decreases the need for additional new nuclear projects by 2035’. It wanted 3GW, and suggested there should be sufficient biomass for that. It didn’t mention storage space for CO2!

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