Like too many nuclear projects, those involved in the industry joked, the Government’s launch of Great British Nuclear (GBN) was late. For those who have been eagerly anticipating Great British Nuclear, good things can come to those who wait; the proposals offered by DESNZ outline in greater detail how the Government plans to fulfil its stated ambition of nuclear to reach development at ‘an unprecedented scale and pace’.
What exactly that scale and pace will be remains helpfully fuzzy, but briefings ahead of the announcement had been put out to friendly journalists that indicate an expectation of between five to eight new Small Modular Reactor (SMR) projects being supported with government investment of up to £20 billion. The £20 billion figure was later confirmed by Shapps as a statement of ambition but not a spending commitment. It was intended to indicate the level of ambition and how seriously ministers were about the development of new smaller and more agile reactors – without the need presumably for a Treasury statement.
The formal launch of GBN, including an industry competition on SMRs, was accompanied by an announcement of up to £157m of grant funding for the nuclear industry across next-generation technology, fuels and regulatory support for designs.
In terms of timelines – the first SMR is hoped to be available before the end of 2029. Helpfully that will be, at best, the end of the next term of Government. It’s a target that the current government does not know it will be able to honour or fundamentally know if it has any say in.
In 2009, Ed Miliband, then Labour’s Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, approved ten potential nuclear power sites, granted just six months before an election. Some fourteen years later, only Hinkley Point C is even under construction. The new Conservative government of the time cancelled, delayed or dithered on new nuclear power.
The new proposals for GBN will see an Autumn round of taking forward opportunities, then there will likely initiate a few more follow-up exercises ahead of a more definitive announcement… about six months before the General Election. Could history be repeating itself?
That means we need to know what Labour thinks because even if they don’t win the General Election, investors will not put in the time, effort, and inevitable billions of sunk costs without absolute confidence.
Will the next election be one that leads to nuclear progress or energy partition? Keir Starmer, in June, laid out Labour’s future energy policy, which described nuclear power as a “critical part” of the UK’s energy mix and pledged to get stalled projects over the line, as Labour positions itself firmly behind the technology. This included promises on the Hinkley and Sizewell’s nuclear projects, extending the existing plants’ lifetime, and backing new nuclear, including SMRs. A commitment was also made to subsume Great British Nuclear into Labour’s plan for the much broader Great British Energy.
However, there is a long way to an election, and the manifesto process is still ongoing. Nuclear is a potential wedge issue for the Party with the green wing anti and the union’s pro.
For businesses who want to make the energy transition viable through nuclear innovation, the timelines are tight to influence the next decades of nuclear investment. Shapps told the Financial Times earlier that Britain had a “10 to 15-year lead on this”, arguing that cross-party backing in the UK for laws and targets to tackle climate change had already drawn huge public and private investment.
Research from YouGov has demonstrated that public support for nuclear investment has reached record highs post the energy price crisis. However, how local communities will feel about having new nuclear technology placed in their backyard remains to be seen.
One thing is clear. At this moment, engagement and policy synthesis with the Labour Party is an essential requirement.