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Let’s do something or the lights really will go out



UK energy policy is a complex area that often invites very divergent views and heightens emotions. Perhaps because of this, it’s worth asking whether it some time seems to have a lack of purpose or direction and is left to evolve rather than being led? This is particularly evident right now on the subject of nuclear procurement and there are many informed commentators that predict serious power outages in the not-too-distant future if there is not strong leadership shown soon.


The case for having clarity was seriously strengthened when Germany fired up its Wendelstein 7–X stellarator. This experimental fusion device was switched on for the first time in December 2015 after almost twenty years of research and one billion euros worth of investment. And it worked. Now that the first test has been successful, research activity will accelerate and there is anticipation that hydrogen fusion will be demonstrated soon, paving the way for an almost limitless new source of clean energy. 


But why is this important to the nuclear fission debate? Well, it points to a fairly certain timeline when we can expect to see fusion technology scaled up and developed to a commercial and functioning reality. This is likely to be quite a bit less than fifty years (perhaps only around thirty) and so neatly shows the time gap needed to be filled. This is probably only one generation of new nuclear fission power stations, which suggests we simply get on and do it.


How is perhaps the most immediate question? Up until recently, the answer was the massive proposed Hinkley C plant. But, as I write this in February, this now looks increasingly unlikely to be built given the problems being experienced in both France and China with the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) design at the heart of the projects. While the Chinese may not be quite as fastidious about nuclear safety as the French, and so may be able to deliver EPR plants more quickly, it will be the experience in France that will be most influential to EDF’s investment in Hinkley. In particular, the growing concerns about the safety of EDF’s flagship EPR reactor under construction in Flamanville will put a very unhelpful spotlight on the viability of Hinkley’s EPR project. Suddenly, attention is now being drawn to the, until now, lower profile projects such as at Wylfa in Anglesey. Wylfa intends using a different technology to the EPR, the tried and tested Advanced Boiling Water Reactor, and some suggest this is perhaps where the future for the next generation of nuclear build should lie.


Whatever direction UK energy policy takes in terms of the technology to be used it is surely beholden on us all to be bold and choose a route that ensures we get more base load nuclear generation into the mix to see us through to the next step change that fusion should deliver. The recent announcement to extend the life of four UK nuclear power plants provides a little bit of breathing space but if our masters do not take decisive action very soon, there is no question the lights will go out during our lifetime. What would that say about the UK and our energy policy?

April 2016

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