Britain has a proud nuclear heritage. We split the atom, built the world’s first commercial nuclear power station, and built another ten more in the decade that followed. Yet, Britain hasn’t built a new nuclear power station in almost three decades. 

In the next decade, all but one of our existing nuclear stations will be decommissioned. Yet, we have failed to replace them with new nuclear plants despite support for it being strongest among those that live closest to existing nuclear sites. Nuclear means good long-term jobs for local people and more money spent on the local high street. These benefits are why we were able to fill a room on a cold, wet Thursday in January in support of a new nuclear power plant in Cumbria.

To become truly energy secure, we need to listen to our nuclear communities and combine a majority renewable grid with safe, reliable, and low-carbon baseload power from nuclear. If Britain is to lead in the high-tech industries of the future like AI then we will need that low-carbon baseload power more than ever before.

Yet, new nuclear power in Britain faces a major challenge: cost. Hinkley Point C is set to be the most expensive nuclear power station ever built – costing £42bn (or £12.82mn per MW).

Nuclear doesn’t have to be expensive. When Britain Remade analysed every nuclear power plant, with reliable cost data, built since 2000, we found that South Korea is able to build nuclear power stations for six times less than Hinkley Point C per megawatt. Finland and France are able to build the same reactor design as us for half the cost. Britain itself built power plants for half the price per megawatt, after accounting for inflation, in the 1980s, and a quarter or less in the 1950s and 1960s.

Why are our costs so high? One key factor is that South Korea builds cheaply by committing to a single design and building fleets of eight to twelve reactors. Hinkley Point C, by contrast, is effectively a first-of-a-kind reactor design due to the 7,000 design changes required to meet British nuclear regulations. Hinkley Point C uses 25% more concrete and 35% more steel in construction compared to the same reactor design built in France as a consequence.

Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) are a new form of nuclear power station that can be constructed off-site, then shipped and assembled. As their name suggests, they are significantly smaller than a full gigascale nuclear power station. For example, Rolls-Royce SMR’s design is around one-tenth the size as a full-scale reactor. Some designs are even smaller. SMRs are exciting because they offer the potential for South Korean-style savings by building fleets. But as it stands, our planning system and regulations are not fit for purpose for SMRs.

Our planning system is a problem for gigascale reactors too. In order to gain planning permission to build Sizewell C, EDF produced a 44,000 page environmental impact assessment. At Hinkley Point C, millions of pounds are being spent on habitat mitigations including a speaker system to save less than one trawler’s worth of fish. Wylfa in Anglesey’s application for planning permission was recommended for refusal on the grounds it might threaten an arctic tern colony.

To deliver the clean reliable baseload power Britain’s households and businesses need will require us to slash the cost of building new nuclear power stations.


Updating the nuclear national policy statement

A new national policy statement for nuclear power is urgently needed to respond to the UK’s energy insecurity. It should include a clear statement that as the Office for Nuclear Regulation assesses safety and design choices, the issues should not be re-opened during the planning process or consultation. Only site-specific issues such as water management should be covered when discussing designs already in use.

To deliver fleets of SMRs, the national policy statement for nuclear should create a strong presumption in favour of standardisation for SMRs. In cases of designs already in use, the policy tests around good design and alternatives should be removed. Any reforms to environmental impact assessments and habitats regulations designed to spur the development of renewables should equally apply to nuclear.


Backing Great British Nuclear

Britain’s nuclear delivery body Great British Nuclear must be given full backing to buy sites and de-risk development for new fleets of SMRs. Government can play a crucial active role in shaping the market for nuclear energy. Targeted early-stage investment, for example funding companies to take SMR designs through the regulatory approval and planning processes, is vital to reducing financing costs and attracting private-sector investment in new nuclear.


Delivering a new approach to siting for SMRs

Small Modular Reactors, which can be less than a tenth of the size of gigascale plants, do not have the same land or water requirements. This matters because it means that SMRs could be built in many more locations than just the small number of officially designated sites. For example, research from the US Department of Energy suggests that around 80% of existing or retired coal-fired power plants sites could be repurposed into SMRs. The next government should remove the requirements that they can only be built on designated sites and allow SMRs to be built in any place that meets key conditions around population density and nature.

SMRs and Advanced Modular Reactors (AMRs) could also play an important role in industrial decarbonisation providing clean energy for heavy power users like data centres, steel production and chemical plants. Where safe, a new national policy statement on nuclear should explicitly support the co-location of manufacturing and nuclear generation.


Adopting a unilateral recognition approach to nuclear safety

The cost of building Hinkley Point C was driven up by the need to make over 7,000 design changes to meet standards set by the Office for Nuclear Regulation. To cut the cost of building and speed up approval processes, Britain should automatically approve designs approved elsewhere by trusted regulators. South Korea’s APR-1400, which is already approved by US and EU regulators, should not have to go through the standard four year long approval process.

Moving to a mutual recognition approach would also free up time for our regulators allowing them to prioritise approving new SMR designs.


Fast-tracking a new nuclear power station at Wylfa

Due to its geology, access to water, and existing grid connections, Wylfa B site in Anglesey/Ynys Môn is the best site in Europe for gigascale nuclear generation. It is vital that work on building a new nuclear power station on the island starts as soon as possible. To speed up the process, the government should ensure that planning work from the cancelled Wylfa Horizon project can be used as much as feasibly possible.