4 October, 2023
Built Environment Networking, by Olivia White
The UK Government has an ambition for 24 gigawatts of nuclear energy by 2050. That’s almost double the highest installed capacity the UK has ever achieved. Such an aspiration needs significant political support both on the national level, driving policy, and locally to support developments.
So where are our UK politicians in terms of the need for nuclear?
Cavendish Consulting, in collaboration with the Nuclear Industry Association, commissioned YouGov to conduct a survey of MPs from across the UK to help us understand their views on new nuclear, and the extent to which they would support or oppose the development of new advanced nuclear technologies within their constituencies.
Positive about nuclear
Our survey found that just over two-thirds (68%) of MPs support advanced nuclear technology in their constituency, with 88% of Conservative MPs and 54% of Labour MPs in favour for nuclear.
The appetite from the Tories has been shown in UK Government policy, from the progression of Sizewell C and creation of Great British Nuclear to funding programmes such as the Future Nuclear Enabling Fund to provide support for new nuclear.
Labour has expressed its support for nuclear and through Great British Energy would “drive investment and innovation in the UK’s nuclear industry, which is critical for our energy security”. Despite this, our results suggest the sector must continue to clearly relay the benefit of advanced nuclear technologies to key figures within the Party prior to a General Election.
Our survey showed opposition is strongest amongst Scottish MPs, with 100% of those surveyed opposing new nuclear technology which coincides with Scottish Government’s stance that is it “opposes the building of new nuclear stations using current technologies”.
Whilst it is unlikely that this policy will change overnight, there are suggestions the public may be more amenable to new nuclear, and the part it can play in complementing the country’s energy mix. Separate public perception polling by Britain Remade found 44% of SNP voters believed nuclear power should be included in Scotland’s energy mix, with 39% opposing. The question is, will SNP’s historical and strong policy stance on nuclear continue or will the shifting support amongst its membership, and increasing energy bills, provide an opportunity for a change or at least an acceptance of the role nuclear can play in Scotland’s energy future.
Building trust in new nuclear
A central strand of interest amongst politicians is the progress of new technology in small modular (SMRs) and advanced modular reactors (AMRs). In theory quicker and cheaper to build, with less community impact, these technologies will be an attractive addition to the energy market.
Cementing this interest into more substantial advocacy across the parties should be a priority for the industry. Our research showed MPs see jobs and skills as being the biggest benefit to their constituency of having a nuclear facility over energy security, net zero and reduced energy prices. The industry should look to maximise socio-economic benefits as a marked difference from other low-carbon energy sources which support limited job creation beyond construction.
For all the enthusiasm, there are ongoing concerns in terms of nuclear waste, from MPs across the board. Nuclear power is the only large-scale energy-producing technology that takes full responsibility for all its waste, safety and environmental impact. The waste legacy is a key concern across all parties, however SNP are the most concerned with it (92%), along with safety concerns (84%).
For Labour MPs these concerns are more prominent than for Conservative MPs, therefore the industry should be focusing resources on engaging Labour MPs and candidates to help build greater trust in nuclear.
Time not money
Financing and cost are often raised as an issue by nuclear sceptics but only 15% of MPs polled raised construction cost as a concern for new nuclear. This is perhaps a reflection of the lower cost claims from SMR technology developers.
For the Tories, the biggest concern is the length of time it takes to get planning permission. Whilst we’ve seen the UK Government make moves to reform the National Significant Infrastructure Project regime it is unlikely in the short term new nuclear will benefit, especially as the updated policy statement for nuclear isn’t expected until 2025.
In addition, the need for nuclear technology to go through the Generic Design Assessment and for operators to hold a Nuclear Site Licence, means regardless of reactor size, developers need to navigate a complex arrangement of permissions, consents and licenses. All of which need to be explained to stakeholders and communities as part of any development process. At a Westminster level, early and regular engagement to both reassure and explain these processes can only help smooth project development.