Britain’s energy infrastructure is changing significantly – for the first time in a generation. It’s happening both to replace power stations that reach the end of their operating lives, and also to transition towards a low carbon economy. We must become far more dependent on low carbon technologies including renewables, gas with carbon capture and storage, and nuclear. Importantly, opinion polls reveal that four out of five people support a diverse energy mix to ensure a reliable supply of energy.
Switching to a low carbon electricity system represents a long-term, capital-intensive infrastructure programme with a number of complementary components which collectively will ensure Britain has reliable, cost effective and low carbon electricity. Including nuclear within the energy mix has increasingly gained public support over the past decade; partly because of its low carbon credentials but also because the public voice has been sought out and listened to via a number of public consultations.
Looking to the future, there are two elements to the UK’s nuclear contribution: firstly maintaining the operation of existing reactors, which currently deliver 15-20% of Britain’s electricity needs, and secondly the programme of new nuclear build that will form the nuclear component out to around 2100. This programme is attracting considerable investment with three international developers planning three different reactor designs across five UK sites, all of them close to existing nuclear facilities. All reactors are progressing, or have progressed, through the UK’s safety and environmental assessment process.
The nuclear sector has recognised the importance of engaging with the public. EDF Energy have opened up Visitor Centres at their reactor sites, while Sellafield Limited have created a state-of-the-art exhibition at the Beacon Museum in Whitehaven and supported the BBC’s recent programme “Britain’s Nuclear Secrets: Inside Sellafield” presented by Jim Al Khalili. A strategy for public engagement was published last year by the Nuclear Industry Council, recommending that the sector follow four key principles of best practice:
Looking further ahead, there is scope for developing new reactor concepts including small and modular reactors, which can provide both electricity and potentially heat, and also for considering even more advanced reactors which can be powered with reprocessed spent fuel to make more efficient use of the uranium fuel, and generate less nuclear waste. These advances will need targeted research across the UK, drawing together universities, national laboratories and industry and linking effectively with the international community. As with nuclear, the public can also engage in research, particularly with universities who regularly hold open days, and with schools programmes to discuss the practical implications of their research on public life.