10

 

EVIDENCE

to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee

Inquiry into the Government’s approach to delivering nuclear power

from the Sussex Energy Group at the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex

Andy Stirling, Phil Johnstone, Gordon Mackerron

3rd October 2022

 

1. Introduction

 

The Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), based at the University of Sussex, is a globally leading centre for academic research on science, technology and innovation policy and management. The institute is consistently ranked as one of the world’s foremost ‘think tanks’ in this field by the Global Think Tank Index Report. The Sussex Energy Group (SEG) in SPRU is the UK’s longest-running energy research group and has for many years conducted world-leading research on nuclear policy.

 

Gordon Mackerron chaired the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM) between 2003-2007 and was a special adviser on energy in the former coalition Government. Andy Stirling has served in many policy advisory roles for government and industry bodies, including for the former Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), the Department of Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and Scottish Nuclear. The authors have contributed evidence to governmental and industry inquiries on nuclear policy, including the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), DTI, BEIS, the Public Accounts Committee, the Welsh Affairs Committee, and the Cabinet Office.

 

 

2. What technical challenges do the next generation of nuclear fission power plants, including Small Modular Reactor and Advanced Modular Reactors, face?

 

2.1              Next-generation nuclear fission power plants face a number of major technical challenges.1 These are serious in several different ways. Longstanding experimentation with precursors of the many basic designs currently under discussion fails to lend confidence that these can in practice be competitive 2. The smaller envisaged unit sizes for small modular reactors (SMRs) forego the crucial economies of scale enjoyed by present-day reactors.3 Even with these economies of scale, present-day large reactors are widely recognised to be far from economically viable.4 5 So it is unclear how this further disadvantage of SMRs will be overcome.

 

2.2              This raises a further important, but neglected, issue. Given long lead times before any new generation of reactors is ready, the apparent official commitment to build as many as one station per year will have to be fulfilled for some time by using existing designs of large-scale reactors. Current experience with building Hinkley Point C indicates that it will be at least a decade late and with huge cost over-runs. There is hardly any recent nuclear construction experience in the rest of Europe – which is itself significant in making the UK’s commitment unique. In Finland and France, where the same design is used as at Hinkley (and prospectively at Sizewell), experience is even worse than at Hinkley. In the event that other existing nuclear technologies are built as part of a large reactor programme, they will face first-of-a-kind (to the UK) risks and costs that make their overall costs exceptionally difficult to forecast.

 

2.3              With respect to the new designs highlighted in this question, manufacturing these at scale requires prior confidence in presently non-existent markets, at a level that is inconsistent with the uncertainties and magnitude of the likely costs 6. Long lead times are necessary for the design and piloting of prototypes, as well as to establish manufacturing infrastructures and supply chains. 7 These lead times are in severe tension with short-run energy security and climate action targets. 8 Energy efficiency, renewable energy, electricity storage, grid flexibility technologies and demand management are all widely acknowledged to be radically more cost-effective and rapidly implementable.9 10 11 If these options were to benefit from the levels of support and policy attention currently envisaged for new nuclear plant, they would together be capable over time of entirely substituting the possible contribution of more expensive and slower nuclear strategies.12 It is therefore unclear why Parliament has yet to undertake dedicated inquiries to give complementary and balanced attention to these other options. This history of bias towards what is now widely recognised to be the manifestly less viable option of nuclear power has in itself been a significant longstanding obstacle to progress on energy security and climate goals. 13

 

 

3. What support or interventions are required to bring these technologies to the grid as soon as possible?

 

3.1          "As soon as possible" is – under any view – clearly far less soon for advanced nuclear strategies than would be the case if alternative non-nuclear strategies14 15 were to benefit from similar levels of support. The fact that energy efficiency, renewable energy, electricity storage, grid flexibility technologies and demand management are significantly more economically viable,16 more quickly deliverable17 and so capable of meeting projected UK18 19 (as well as global20 21) demand underscores the crucial query posed above. Why is Parliament not asking similar dedicated and favourable questions of these alternative and more promising technologies?

 

 

4. When will fusion power supply electricity to the grid?

 

4.1          There exists a half-century history of radical error in the confident assertion of answers to this kind of question.22 23 This in itself provides a crucial body of evidence for the present Inquiry. Although new arguments are now being made which anticipate that demonstration fusion plants are genuinely on the horizon,24 25 a realistic timeline for completion remains remote compared with what is needed for climate action. Even under optimistic views, the challenges of cost and time faced by fusion remain significantly more severe than those faced by new generation fission plant – and even more so than for alternative energy efficiency, renewable energy, electricity storage, grid flexibility and demand management technologies.20 26 So the query is correspondingly even more acute as to why Parliament is asking disproportionately about nuclear fission and fusion, rather than about these non-nuclear electricity generating technologies.

 

 

5. What are the advantages and disadvantages of developing fusion technologies over other energy sources?

 

5.1          As with any technology, the balance of advantages and disadvantages is seen very differently by those with an interest and those who are more independent.27 What distinguishes fusion is the credibility afforded in policy debates to accounts from closely interested parties. This is despite an undisputed long history of seriously erroneous optimism. Despite some proponents’ claims to the contrary, fusion raises its own safety,28 waste management29 and proliferation30 questions, which (as they emerge) risk significantly adding to delays and costs. To avoid a repeat of the adverse experience following early neglect of related issues around nuclear fission,31 these questions will need to be properly addressed before responsible implementation. This requires active critical interrogation, not blanket favourable assumptions. So, a key question is why, despite this history, the treatment of fusion power should be so much more indulgent than for other prospective energy technologies, which present more effective and rapidly operational alternatives. Any inquiry into the potential pros and cons of fusion power which hopes to avoid errors of the past on fission should take care to attend to a balanced array of sources and not focus so disproportionately (as at present) on the arguments of fusion proponents.

 

 

6. What could be done to ensure that the UK’s electricity supply is not affected by the high proportion of reactors being decommissioned?

 

6.1              The answer here again lies in the steady progress that has been made in recent years in UK developments in energy efficiency, renewable energy, grid flexibility and demand management 32 33. This is especially impressive, given the relatively low levels of official attention and support that these options have enjoyed compared to nuclear power, to other countries and to their very large-scale potential. And this mismatch in itself provides a clear evidence-based challenge to a premise behind this question. The potential for further scaling up and acceleration of these options is manifestly sufficient to provide much more rapid and low-cost responses to decommissioning of existing nuclear plant than can be provided by new nuclear projects.34 So what is again highlighted is the oddity that the decommissioning of old nuclear reactors should so often be treated by Government specifically as a cue for more nuclear projects. This is a very different approach to that taken on the many other system changes that the above non-nuclear zero-carbon strategies have already very effectively addressed. What other technology – especially in such a dynamic field of innovation – benefits from such an uncritical assumption that it must be replaced like-for-like? Again, the framing of the terms of this Inquiry indicates a serious bias and obstacle to effective policymaking.

 

 

7. How can the Government ensure that the cost of decommissioning does not increase any further?

 

7.1          In the UK, as elsewhere, the history of nuclear decommissioning costs is one of continuous escalation.35 36 One key factor driving this is the ever-growing revelation over time, of the extent of appraisal optimism in the past.37 38 This past optimism was itself supported by a policy climate of partisan exceptionalism for nuclear power.39 So it is a matter of concern – as raised in the above responses – that a similar kind of bias is again evident (despite past experience) in the orientation of the present Inquiry. One important measure that can be taken, then, to ensure that decommissioning costs are addressed realistically and are not subject to continuing escalation, is to listen at least as much to independent expertise as to analysis produced by vested interests which have been so misleading in the past.

 

 

8. How can lessons learnt from decommissioning programmes be used to benefit new nuclear power programmes?

 

8.1          Arguably the single most important lesson learned from decommissioning programmes in the UK,40 41 42 as around the world,43 is that the optimistic costings asserted at early stages when investments were being decided, turned out to be radically more expensive 35. A key implication is thus a need for greater caution about policy appraisals undertaken by nuclear industry bodies on this topic. In particular, a key lesson is that nuclear programmes are repeatedly significantly less favourable than initially claimed.44 45 For this Inquiry to phrase this question by reference only to how new nuclear programmes can be "benefitted" (rather than also focusing also on how they might alternatively need to be set aside) is therefore a further sign of effectively the same kind of bias. This risks the courting of further expensive mistakes.

 

 

9. What needs to be done to improve the UK’s approach to dealing with nuclear waste and to ensure that the Government can meet its aims of transferring waste to geological disposal facilities?

 

9.1          A key means to improve the UK’s approach to dealing with nuclear waste is to explicitly ask questions about whether currently 'best available options are actually satisfactory in economic, technical, environmental or health terms.37 The fact that existing radioactive wastes must be dealt with has (usually implicitly) been taken as a reason why this question should simply not be asked at all. This might make sense if it were reasonable to assume that a future nuclear programme is inevitable. Then it might be logical simply to look for the best available waste management option (even if this is ineffective or extremely expensive) and ignore whether this is satisfactory. But if this best available option is deemed not to be satisfactory in economic or wider terms, then the implication arises that it is only by setting aside new nuclear programmes that long-run radioactive waste management problems can be minimised. If there exists no satisfactory means to manage a particular kind of industrial waste stream, then the most rational conclusion is that further such wastes should not be produced.

 

9.2          At the moment, the failure even to ask this ‘satisfactory?’ question about radioactive arisings (let alone systematically answer it) means that existing highly problematic waste streams are implicitly serving (ironically) as a major driver of future nuclear programmes. This disturbingly resembles the logic of an addict, for whom past habits are a major reason for continuing a seriously expensive and damaging dependency. Again, this bias can be reduced if bodies like this Committee ask questions of nuclear and alternative energy strategy options in more comprehensive and balanced ways. This should include considering, in the light of experience, whether associated waste streams are not merely ‘manageable’ to any arbitrarily poor level of quality46 but whether this best achievable level of quality might confidently be deemed satisfactory. If not, then a future nuclear programme becomes part of the waste problem.

 

 

10. How can the funding methods that support the development of nuclear technologies be improved?

 

10.1      This depends on whether nuclear power is approached as an option that somehow self-evidently deserves support, or whether it is treated in a more balanced, realistic and rigorous way, as just one among a diversity of options, no single instance of which is indispensable.47

 

10.2      Issues relating to the funding mechanisms that are reasonably appropriate for nuclear power are effectively the same as those bearing on other zero-carbon energy programmes. Rather than simply assuming that nuclear power should disproportionately benefit from dedicated favourable funding programmes, a key role for Parliament lies in interrogating reasons for such exceptionalism. The fact that this Committee seems disproportionately more concerned in its work about how to fund nuclear than how to fund more effective non-nuclear energy service alternatives, is a further indication of imbalance. Such bias towards nuclear power has in the past proven extremely expensive to taxpayers and consumers and presently risks slowing down and reducing climate action.

 

 

11. How can the UK leverage further private investment in this area?

 

11.1      Because it has been so difficult to acquire new and politically acceptable private investments in ‘commercial’ nuclear power due to the poor economics, Government has resorted for funding to the use of a Regulated Asset Base model. This model requires consumers to pay for new reactors while they are under construction and means that consumers will take on significant construction cost risk while being totally unable to manage such risk. This contrasts with the financing of other relevant technologies where costs only fall on consumers after construction is complete. Again, what is evident here is a remarkable degree of exceptionalism in favour of nuclear power compared with other energy options.

11.2      Accordingly, the best way to leverage further investment in the broad area of zero-carbon energy in general (within which nuclear is just one option) is to approach this task in a balanced fashion across the whole field. Otherwise, partisan exceptionalism for any particular technology (whether nuclear or otherwise) can have the perilous effect of picking winners in advance, warping the efficacy and efficiency of wider market processes.

 

11.3      One notable example of this officially partisan treatment of nuclear power in the UK concerns the episode a few years ago, in which a non energy specialist was recruited as chief scientist for the then energy Department. This individual engaged in an unprecedented programme of public communication, deprecating the relative merits of renewable energy as compared with nuclear power 46. Yet this assertive official insistence that the UK has inadequate viable renewable energy resources contradicted earlier detailed UK government appraisals48 49 and has already been refuted by real-world developments. Such misleading official information serves to undermine market confidence in the rigour and objectivity of UK policy in this field.

 

11.4      An additional important jeopardy to the stability and sustainability of nuclear financing lies in an evident lack of public candour about civil nuclear policy. It has been documented in evidence to other Parliamentary Select Committee Inquiries that the consistent pattern observed here – of official favouritism towards nuclear power in the UK energy sector – reflects military pressures to sustain a nuclear industrial base that is shared with the naval submarine programme.50 51 46 These incentives have been confirmed by the submarine industry itself 52 53 and (on questioning by a different Parliamentary Select Committee) by the then senior responsible UK government official. 54 The same pattern is also openly officially acknowledged in France55 and the USA.56 57 58 In effect, an otherwise arguably unaffordable military infrastructure is being invisibly subsidised by taxpayers (through disproportionate support for civil nuclear power) and by energy consumers (through elevated electricity prices) – outside the defence budget, away from critical scrutiny and entirely off the public books.46 Yet this rationale remains virtually entirely unacknowledged – and even actively denied59 – in general official public communications. This evident warping of zero-carbon energy strategies by pressures from another field of policymaking may help to further undermine the confidence of markets in the rigour and objectivity of UK nuclear strategies and make financing in this field even more difficult and more expensive to secure.

 

11.5      Guided by more transparent, rigorous and balanced general public policy on energy, private investment markets offer a generally effective and efficient means to leverage investment for affordable, secure, zero-carbon electricity. Nuclear power should thus not be treated as a special case that warrants whatever measures might best support further development, without reference to comparative costs or timeliness. By devoting far more attention (as in this Inquiry) to how nuclear can be funded, than on how the multitude of other zero-carbon options are best supported, policymaking bodies risk obscuring, undermining and slowing down achievable levels of investment in affordable secure climate-friendly energy.60

 

 

12. What support will industry need to meet the Government’s ambitions for delivery of new nuclear power plants in the next decade?

 

12.1      History and recent global trends61 strongly suggest that, to remain viable, the nuclear industry will require massive and escalating government support. The levels of this support are highly likely to be far greater than for other zero-carbon policy options that are collectively able in themselves to resolve climate and energy security challenges in more rapid and affordable ways. Again, this raises the question of why this Committee is asking what is needed specifically to benefit the nuclear industry, rather than what is needed more generally to achieve affordable, secure zero-carbon energy. Once more, this kind of bias in policymaking is a major impediment to progress.

 

 

Recommended Actions

Three basic possible immediate practical actions are prompted by this evidence.

The first is that the Committee should take steps to structure its inquiries in this field in a more rigorous, comprehensive, balanced and transparent manner. It is evident from the above responses that the existing Inquiry (taken in the context of other activities by the Committee itself and wider policy bodies) displays an asymmetric approach to nuclear and non-nuclear options for achieving secure, affordable zero-carbon energy services. This could partly be ameliorated if the present Inquiry were more explicitly comparative in its deliberations (between nuclear options on the one hand and non-nuclear options on the other). This improved rigour could also be strengthened if onward deliberations of the Committee reinforced this more balanced comparative policy scrutiny by including fair attention to the relative pros and cons of non-nuclear strategic options.

The second action is for the Committee to raise questions of Government that are similar to those posed in these responses. Why does UK energy policy in general so disproportionately attend to – and favour – nuclear strategies over non-nuclear strategies for achieving rapid, affordable, secure, zero-carbon energy services? Why has the remarkable progress in renewable energy in the UK been so often led by commercial firms and innovations from outside the UK, where policy programmes are less biased towards supporting nuclear power? Why are UK policy appraisals of nuclear power so rarely systematically comparative, failing to include energy efficiency, renewable energy, electricity storage, grid flexibility technologies and demand management in symmetrical ways? Why (both explicitly and implicitly) are the relative benefits of these other options so strongly and repeatedly officially understated in the UK, compared with parallel debates in many other countries?

The third action for the Committee to take is to question senior relevant officials about whether a significant reason for this manifest general bias towards nuclear power across UK energy policy is the aim of cross-subsidising an otherwise prohibitively expensive military nuclear industrial base.

References

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Evidence to Science and Technology Committee inquiry into the Government’s approach to delivering nuclear power

from the Sussex Energy Group at the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex