4 November 2020

Sizewell is crucial to a greener, more independent energy future

By Connor Tomlinson and Sam Curran

A new nuclear power plant at Sizewell in Suffolk is soon expected to be given the green light. The announcement has caused consternation in some quarters – with concerns being raised about the impact on the local environment and the involvement of Chinese investors. But if Britain is to achieve energy self-sufficiency and meet its net zero emissions target by 2050, we need to get this facility built.

Nuclear energy is a safe, practical and sustainable solution to our long-term energy needs. Nuclear plants aren’t weather-dependent like solar or wind, and only produce emissions during construction and decommission. By comparison coal plants have five times the workplace deaths and 470 times the air pollution-related deaths. In the UK we generate 40% of our energy from natural gas, and we’re a net importer as a result. The United States, on the other hand, has become a net exporter of oil while reducing emissions in 2019. Britain must look to sources like nuclear if we are to attain similar energy independence.

At the moment 20% of our annual energy comes from nuclear stations, but half of these are set to be retired by 2025. So the anticipated announcement from the Government confirming construction of the Sizewell C [SZC] nuclear power station is timely. Beside the Drax coal and Biomass station, SZC and its sister station Hinckley Point C [HPC] will be the UK’s largest by capacity, with each station supplying six million homes with electricity for a likely operational life of 60 years.

However, the construction of SZC has been met with concern over the economic viability of its design. Pressure from unions to preserve jobs at HPC has inflated construction costs, forcing the Government to consider purchasing a stake in the project alongside primary funder EDF – that could mean rising energy bills over the decade required to complete construction.

Practical factors diminish these objections somewhat. SZC will replicate the design of HPC and benefit from the experience of the same workforce, which should reduce construction costs, and HPC’s second reactor was built in 30% less time than its first. But it does look like public money will have to be spent. However, the transition to renewables is predicted to increase energy prices from all sources. Therefore, it makes sense for Britain get a head-start on both energy independence, and pacing out energy price inflation, by investing in plants like SZC now.

Local activists have also expressed animosity toward the project’s prospective environmental impact. SZC will be built in an area of marshland previously raised as part of the sea defences for another nuclear power station, Sizewell B. However the reduction in emissions and pollutants with a transition to nuclear will produce greater, broader environmental benefits which outweigh the effects in the immediate vicinity of the plant. This particular project will, according to EDF, prevent nine million tonnes of CO2 being released.

There’s also understandable anxiety over Chinese investment in these plants. State-owned company CGN owns a 33% stake in HPC, and 22% in SZC. With the Huawei 5G deal already scrapped due to security concerns, and strained relations caused by China’s conduct in Hong Kong, it’s arguable their involvement is too great a risk to take.

Private sector funding incentives, like qualified tax-exempt interest loans for green industries, have been floated as ways of reducing the cost to taxpayers of construction. These private investment methods, if adopted, could encourage more dependable, domestic sources of private investment in the future. In the meantime, the government is right to scrutinise Chinese state investment in SZC and adjacent projects. But the need to seek alternative funding mechanisms for these plants does not make them any less essential.

SZC, and future projects, will become the nuclear cornerstone of a self-sufficient National Grid and enable Britain to reach its net zero emissions target by 2050. So ignore the unscientific luddites – nuclear is the way forwards for clean, green and economically viable energy.

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Connor Tomlinson and Sam Curran work at the British Conservation Alliance as National Policy Director and a Policy Researcher respectively.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.