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The future has to be nuclear

Sizewell B nuclear station, Suffolk – the only nuclear station not coming to the end of its life. Photo SN Thomas Photography/shutterstock.com.

Electricity is vital for modern life, whatever contribution from other renewable energy sources, nuclear power will continue to be an effective way to provide it for the foreseeable future…

The annual share of Britain’s electricity provided by nuclear power has shrunk from 23 per cent in 2000 to under 15 per cent in 2021. The main reactors we use, second-generation Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors (AGRs), will all close by 2028. Only Sizewell B power station could have its lifetime further extended.

Will we need electricity in the future? Yes, and lots of it, not least for the computing needs of AI. Whether or not you believe all the claims made for its capabilities, AI will require more and more power-hungry supercomputers, which won’t work if they’re not plugged in at the mains.

And of course energy, the power to operate machines, to provide light and heat, is also fundamental to commodity production. To begin with, the human race had little more than muscle for transforming raw materials, and the use of slave labour was widespread for many centuries. Animals were also used – horsepower, a concept invented by James Watt, measures how much a pit pony could lift in a minute.


The industrial revolution, in which Britain led the world, required power. Water and steam power were key at first. But the use of electricity took industrial development to a new level.

In the early 1830s Michael Faraday built the Faraday disc, the first electric generator, and William Sturgeon invented a direct current electric motor for converting electrical energy into mechanical energy. By 1881 the first central station providing public power opened in Godalming, and in 1882 the first large-scale central distribution plant, at Holborn Viaduct in London.

Ernest Rutherford and his team at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge were the first to split the atomic nucleus, in 1932. Their experiments demonstrated the immense power of nuclear fission, at first used in atomic bombs.

The Soviet Union was the first country to use a nuclear power plant to generate electricity for a power grid, in 1954 at Obninsk. But Britain was the first to use a nuclear power station, at Calder Hall in Cumbria, for commercial-scale supply; it was connected to the national grid in 1956.

Between the 1955 White Paper A Programme of Nuclear Power and 1979, 17 nuclear power stations were approved. Sizewell B was the last nuclear reactor opened in Britain. Approved in 1987, it came online in 1995.

It took 21 years and seven governments to approve another in 2016 at Hinkley Point C, but it’s not due to come online until 2027. Discussions about building new reactors at Wylfa on Anglesey and at Moorside in Cumbria foundered but the government is in negotiations over another at Sizewell.

Recently, war and the price of gas have concentrated minds on the question of Britain’s energy security. With all but one of our reactors, Sizewell B, coming to the end of their lives, Britain will be increasingly reliant on gas imports and on electricity imported through interconnectors. This has consequences for the security of supplies and for costs to industry and consumers.

Renewables shortfall

The claim that renewables will meet all our energy needs fails to take into account that the sun and wind occur intermittently. In December 2022, for example, when it was cold but the wind didn’t blow, power prices shot up. The National Grid had to use its “demand flexibility service” to cut consumption at peak times. On other occasions, when the wind blows too much the National Grid has to ask for wind turbines to be shut down.

Nuclear fusion is acknowledged as a potential source of power. But even after decades of experimentation it is still many years before it could become an economically viable source.

More promising are developments like Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). They are, relatively speaking, easier and quicker to build than stations like Hinkley C. They use factory-produced designs, and can be sited close to demand.

This form of construction is cheaper to build  and reduces the risk of projects overrunning. This should make SMRs easier to finance at a time when gigawatt-scale reactors have proved too much for commercial balance sheets to bear.

The international industry body the World Nuclear Association says that, “The UK has privatized power generation and liberalized its electricity market, which together make major capital investments problematic.”

Britain once led the world in peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Now, through inaction over decades, we rely on Chinese, Japanese, American and French expertise to develop it. And EDF which operates most of our current facilities is French.

The government has been forced to acknowledge the problem, but its response is inadequate. The British Energy Security Strategy issued in 2022 isn’t really a strategy. And Powering Up Britain, the energy security plan of March 2023, isn’t really a plan.

The House of Commons Science Innovation and Technology Committee was not taken in. As it said, targets are not a strategy. And given the half-life of a government minister is so short, it would be unwise to rely on governments to plan anything for the future.

‘There’s a new body, Great British Nuclear. But no one, government or industry, seems to know what its job is…’

There’s a new body, Great British Nuclear. But no one, government or industry, seems to know what its job is. But it’s clear that the government has learned little from the past 70 years – it’s looking favourably at US-based SMRs instead of Rolls-Royce, based here and an international leader in the technology.

We need a real strategy, then. What should it contain? Prospect, the trade union, made a useful start in their evidence to the committee. They propose the extension of existing plants where safe to do so, a full funding settlement for Sizewell C and future plants, a comprehensive skills and workforce plan and backing for the nuclear supply chain.

The civil nuclear industry directly employs around 65,000 workers, with a further 160,000 jobs in supply chains. Two- thirds of those jobs, are in North West and South West England. They’re highly skilled jobs – but where is the strategy to educate and train the future scientists, engineers and technicians to deliver the government targets?

Our energy strategy cannot be left to the market, as recent history shows. Hitachi and Toshiba pulled out of the Wylfa and Moorside projects in 2019. It’s unwise to rely on EDF to continue to invest in Sizewell C.

Our only nuclear fuel manufacturer, Springfields at Salwick, near Preston, was under threat. The owner, Westinghouse, has now had taxpayer-funded grants from the Nuclear Fuel Fund to upgrade and expand the facility.


So it’s a complicated and difficult position to be in. But there are grounds for optimism. There’s been a change in thinking.

You rarely see those yellow Nuclear Power No Thanks symbols at all these days. There has been a shift of opinion. A recent poll by Greenpeace, reported in Workers November/December 2023 edition, found that young climate activists have a much more positive attitude to nuclear energy than their elders. In the population more generally, only around 11 per cent oppose nuclear power.

Disruption to energy supplies caused by the pandemic and by war may have played their part in making us think harder about where our power comes from, how it reaches us, who owns it. Brexit opened our eyes to our potential for independence. And the recent upsurge in trade union struggle has fostered collective thinking about our future.

Power, both the power to transform raw materials, and political power, the power to transform society, are fundamental to the workers of Britain. Nuclear energy is fundamental to our future.

This article is based on speeches and discussion at two CPBML public meetings in November 2023.