18 May, 2023
The Telegraph by Sam Dumitriu
Does nuclear power have a future in Scotland? The SNP’s position is long-standing and clear: “We do not support the building of new nuclear power stations.” Yet, it turns out this policy is the latest in a growing list of issues where the SNP are not just out of touch with the Scottish public but their own voters, too.
New polling, commissioned by pro-growth campaign Britain Remade, has revealed more than half (53 per cent) of all Scots believe new nuclear has a role to play in Scotland’s clean energy mix. Less than a third (28 per cent) oppose it. Even voters who backed the SNP at the last election are more likely to support new nuclear than oppose it (44 per cent to 39 per cent).
In five years, Scotland’s only remaining operating nuclear power station, Torness, will close for good. Germany, which switched off its last three nuclear plants exactly one month ago, provides a warning.
Emissions are higher than they would be because clean, reliable, domestic nuclear was replaced by dirty, imported coal. In fact, Germany missed their 2022 emissions reductions goals despite a massive expansion in renewables. Bills went up, too, as plants that could have stayed open producing cheap energy for decades more were shuttered early.
Opposition to nuclear is often driven by misplaced concerns around safety. The SNP’s partners in government, the Greens, assert that nuclear power is can “never be safe” and will leave a “toxic legacy”.
Accidents such as Windscale, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are often cited, but as Our World in Data notes, in terms of deaths per unit of energy produced “nuclear is one of the safest and cleanest energy sources” there is. In fact, one study found that, by displacing coal, nuclear power has prevented upwards of two million deaths globally since 1971.
Deaths are so low because safety regulations for nuclear are extremely strict. Torness will close in five years due to cracks in its graphite core. But as Torness’s station director Paul Forrest points out, “it doesn’t affect the plant in how it operates safely. How it does affect the plant is that we are required to demonstrate that we can withstand a Californian-style seismic event”. Scotland is not exactly known for its massive earthquakes.
The SNP frame their ideological opposition to nuclear as a matter of prudence. Why invest in projects like Hinkley Point C (£92.50 per megawatt hour) when offshore wind is available for much less (£37.65 per megawatt hour)? It is a compelling argument, but only superficially.
Renewables versus nuclear is a false choice. Unlike variable renewables, nuclear provides energy even when the sun does not shine and the wind isn’t blowing. If we are to harness the enormous wind potential of the North Sea and move to a majority renewable grid, it will need to be underpinned by a reliable baseload from nuclear to keep the lights on.
Nuclear costs are not fixed either. South Korea builds new nuclear power stations at a fraction of the cost as the UK. Why are their costs low? South Korea builds fleets.
Training specialist welders is expensive, so it makes sense to spread the cost over multiple projects. But in the UK, we build one project at a time. Skills atrophy, or move overseas.
When you build a fleet, each project learns from the mistakes of the last. Practice makes perfect. And it is these same learning-by-doing effects that have caused renewable costs to more than halve in a decade.
A new wave of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), manufactured on a production line, could unlock renewable-style cost savings. Britain could be a pioneer with businesses such as Rolls-Royce SMR playing a leading role.
Yet Scotland’s unscientific ban on new nuclear energy is not the only barrier to an SMR revolution. Even though Westminster is supportive of new nuclear, projects languish under a mountain of planning red tape.
To obtain planning permission, Sizewell C’s developer had to produce a 44,260 page environmental impact assessment, submit 4,378 documents, and answer over 2,000 written questions. They are still facing legal challenges from campaigners who felt an environmental impact assessment 35 times longer than War and Peace wasn’t comprehensive enough.
Any economies of scale will be lost if SMRs, which are on average 1/16th of the size of existing nuclear projects and built off-site, have to face the same hurdles. A simpler fast-tracked planning process for SMRs is a must.
Humza Yousaf was billed as the continuity candidate, yet since taking over his job has been defined by rectifying the mistakes of his predecessor. He has delayed the disastrous Deposit Return Scheme, parked a proposed ban on alcohol advertising, and re-joined international education league tables. He must now put his voters’ concerns about energy security, bills, and jobs over his party’s anti-nuclear ideology.