The Government’s energy security strategy has been long awaited. For those of us concerned about both the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions and our energy prices, the invigoration of our nuclear strategy through the creation of Great British Nuclear is a welcome development, which will allow us to reliably generate low-carbon electricity without relying on sporadic gusts of winds or sunny spells.
This energy strategy takes realism thoroughly into account, primarily in its acknowledgement that global markets, public opinion, and the politics of necessity are pushing us away from fossil fuels. In the wake of Brexit, the pandemic and now war in Europe, we are craving a sense of control over our own affairs. Domestic energy generation – first to look after ourselves and then to sell surplus power to our allies – is a crucial step that is often overlooked. After all, without power, schools, hospitals, and everything else we rely on is crippled. Simply put, we must get our energy policy right, and the Prime Minister has rightly acknowledged that today.
Our energy woes are threefold. Firstly, and most importantly, we need to generate enough electricity to meet demand or lights will go out around the country. Secondly, we need to make sure our supply of electricity is secure and resistant to global shocks in supply, which is why getting off foreign oil and gas is more crucial than ever. Finally, we should be generating power in a way that is most efficient for the future both in terms of carbon emissions and in long-term reliability.
Nuclear power is not a perfect solution to our problems – nothing in this world is perfect – but it comes very close. Both fusion and fission modes of energy generation are low carbon, efficient and supremely powerful, and the government’s introduction of 8 reactors will hopefully provide up to 24 gigawatts of electricity demand from domestic sources. The problems with nuclear energy are the difficulty in funding these reactors, the time taken to construct them, and the concrete used to make them (as of writing this, it is impossible to make concrete without producing carbon dioxide as a biproduct, but I’m sure some smart people are working on that). Many critics have pointed out that this strategy will take years to get underway, and they’re completely correct, which is why we need to start right now.
It would be nice if we could rely on windmills and solar panels to get us to 100% renewable electricity generation as a long term strategy, but that isn’t going to be possible. Finder’s analysis notes that the UK would need to cover 12% of its land in solar panels to be entirely powered by solar energy, an inefficient and costly choice due to our high energy consumption and our distinct lack of sunshine. Nuclear power plants aren’t exactly picturesque, but they’re certainly more efficient in terms of land use than thousands of football fields-worth of solar panels. Long-term reliability is as important as the efficiency per square meter of land use – nuclear is superior in both regards.
Even if we were to adopt the solar strategy, battery storage and precious minerals required for their creation pose problems for supply chains, particularly when China has cornered the market. Wind and solar can supplement the grid at low cost and with minimal emissions, but nuclear must be the reliable core of British energy generation. It is refreshing to see the Government acknowledge this – now we must see rapid and forceful action to make these goals reality.
Complaints about the dangers of nuclear energy are overstated, and our progress towards nuclear sustainability has been held back for years by irrational visions of apocalypse and NIMBYism, even though France has operated on 75% nuclear power for decades. As of 2012, the entire history of nuclear energy has caused 90 deaths per thousand TWh in comparison to 100,000 for coal and 36,000 for oil. If we were so concerned with preventing morbidity and mortality, we would have moved to nuclear energy even faster than we’re doing now.
The government estimates that through this strategy, up to 95% of our electricity will come from low-carbon sources. This is the right way to go, both for future-proofing our economy and supply chains from the inevitable market crash of fossil fuels, but also allowing us to continue to pave the way for innovations in green technology and finance. The UK will be on the front foot in arguably the most important market trend of our lifetimes, rather than relying on the USA, India, or China to take the lead.
This energy strategy is a good start from the government, but it needs a supplementary strategy to truly make low-carbon energy autarky a reality. Electricity generation is important, but energy inefficiency means a lot of our hard work is wasted through lost KWh, whether from uninsulated homes or an inefficient grid. Energy efficiency would save households potentially hundreds of pounds per year, and renewables would provide relatively quick relief with negligible carbon emissions. Unnecessary red tape and barriers to funding will hold us back from upgrading homes, creating new offshore wind farms, and constructing reactors at the rate we need to. All these problems can be addressed unilaterally by the UK Government, without being able to shift the blame onto any external bureaucracy. While weathering the storm of an energy crisis, now is the time to recognise our mistakes and invest in a warmer, brighter, and more secure future.
Whitehall must acknowledge what we need to do and waste no time in pursuing a bold and forward-thinking strategy for the benefit of all of us. While this strategy gets underway, a parallel and immediate set of policies to alleviate the current energy and cost-of-living crisis is essential to ensure that households can cope with the current turmoil. This energy strategy isn’t perfect, but it’s a good start.