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Last edited 26 Feb 2021
 A nuclear future?
Hinkley Point C is the first UK new build nuclear reactor for several decades. This third-generation plant could provide the blueprint for others to follow, but can this low-carbon solution deliver at scale in a cost-effective way?
This comes as the nation is taking steps to alter how we generate electricity for a net-zero emissions future. In the coming decades, the UK’s energy mix will move away from dependable, yet polluting, oil, coal and gas. In fact, the country is going months at a time without burning any coal at all.
Renewables have somewhat stepped into the breach and now provide around 40% of electricity generation. However, generating power using renewable technologies is not without its challenges, and the UK is perhaps neglecting the potential nuclear presents as an alternative low-carbon source of electricity.
Nuclear, like traditional power plants, provides power by heating water into steam which drives turbines. This source of power is reliable and carbon free, meaning it can contribute to the de-carbonisation of electricity generation without the downside intermittency of solar and wind technologies that are currently susceptible to the changing weather.
While there is hope that a programme of repeatable plant designs and reforms to financing could bring costs down, the advice from the National Infrastructure Commission has been to only agree to one more nuclear project before 2025.
This advice stands in contrast to past government ambitions when plans were drawn up to build up to eight new nuclear plants before 2025. Only one, Hinkley Point C, is likely to be completed by this time.
The Government has recently consulted on adopting a form of the Regulated Asset Base model for the nuclear sector, which will change how the sector is financed. This is a potentially important step given that up to two thirds of the cost of a new power plant can be taken up in financing the project.
In the longer term, small modular reactors which could be built more easily, using manufacturing and off-site construction techniques, could supplement major nuclear sites, promising lower cost, more flexible and more rapidly deployable power generation.
 New horizons
Some polls suggest only a third of UK adults have a favourable view of nuclear, and many younger people neither understand the technology or the benefits it can provide. Yet it is necessary for the UK to have a diverse energy mix.
While renewables are promising, they are not always on. It will be some time before the grid can adapt to build up storage capacity or run using mainly intermittent supply. Hence, if the nuclear sector can improve its cost effectiveness, it will be an integral part of meeting our future power needs and reaching net-zero.
The full paper is available to download from this link: Civil engineering insights into nuclear new build in the UK.
This article originally appeared on 9 July 2020 under the title, 'Generation nuclear? Civil engineering insights into nuclear new build in the UK', on ICE's Infrastructure Blog. It was written by Ben Goodwin, Lead Policy Manager.
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