UK ministers want to replicate the country’s successful Covid-19 vaccine task force to deliver new nuclear power stations at “warp speed”, after Boris Johnson said he wanted atomic power to provide at least a quarter of UK electricity generation by 2050.
The UK prime minister told industry leaders on Monday he was “insanely frustrated” with the slow pace at which Britain’s nuclear sector was being developed, according to people at the Downing Street meeting.
As part of the plan Kwasi Kwarteng, business secretary, is pushing for the creation of a new delivery organisation to end more than a decade of stalled efforts to build a fleet of nuclear power stations. Downing Street and the Treasury have yet to formally endorse the proposal, according to people familiar with the situation.
Johnson is expected to set out new targets for nuclear capacity in the forthcoming energy supply strategy, aimed at removing the need for any Russian oil and gas imports and reducing the country’s exposure to highly volatile commodity markets.
Johnson hopes to publish the strategy next week but Rishi Sunak has been holding it up because the chancellor wanted more time to look at the cost implications. Government insiders said Johnson had discussed his 2050 nuclear target at a private meeting with Sunak earlier on Monday. “He didn’t disagree,” said one person briefed on the talks.
The prime minister told energy companies and investors on Monday that he wanted “warp speed” progress to accelerate the build programme for new plants, another person said. The UK’s nuclear power generating capacity is set to more than halve over the course of the decade to 4.45 gigawatts as most of the older generation of reactors are retired.
Nuclear currently accounts for about 16 per cent of the country’s electricity mix. Johnson’s target of at least 25 per cent by 2050 would imply a significant expansion in nuclear generating capacity with demand for electricity expected to double by the middle of the century as part of the UK’s net zero carbon target designed to wean the economy off fossil fuels.
So far one new nuclear plant — the 3.2GW Hinkley Point C in Somerset — is under construction, even though the Labour government in 2006 set out plans for a new generation of reactors. Successive governments have since struggled to persuade the private sector to meet the cost of building new plants, which are often dogged by delays and cost overruns.
Industry executives have long blamed the slow progress on nuclear on a “stalemate” between the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy & Industry Strategy over the costs involved — Hinkley Point C is expected to cost more than £20bn.
“There was a recognition from the government and from the industry [in today’s meeting] that the way they have been doing it so far just isn’t going to deliver enough [capacity], quickly enough,” said one person who attended the meeting.
A new agency was needed to “bring accountability to the process” of developing new plants, said another person present at the meeting.
Industry executives hope an organisation similar to the vaccine task force could fast-track the construction of new reactors. The proposed delivery body would also control any stakes the government takes in new nuclear power stations.
The government has already allocated funding for the UK’s next proposed nuclear power station — Sizewell C in Suffolk — after years of delays in trying to get it financed.
Industry executives have told the government that some 16GW of nuclear capacity would be needed by 2035 to meet the UK’s phased target to cut carbon emissions, which requires the reduction of emissions by 78 per cent compared with 1990 levels. As much as 45GW to 50GW would be needed to deliver the UK’s 2050 “net zero” emissions target, another executive said.