The endlessly thwarted ambition to revive nuclear power in the United Kingdom

Nuclear “Come back, even stronger” (Tony Blair, 2005). “We are reviving our nuclear industry” (David Cameron, 2013). “We want to build one reactor per year” (Boris Johnson, May 2). British Prime Ministers follow one another, each promising to revive the nuclear industry. The reality on the ground, however, hardly changes: the current fleet is aging, and only one power station, in Hinkley, is under construction.

The United Kingdom has always had these hesitations about nuclear power. He built the first civilian power plant in the world, in 1956, and then hardly continued the effort. Today, its power plants, mostly installed in the 1970s and 1980s, then bought by EDF in 2008, produce around 16% of the country’s electricity.

But their age becomes a real problem. In 2017, they produced 64 TWh. Since then, each year, production has declined, reaching 46 TWh in 2021, following maintenance work that took longer than expected. By 2030, with one exception, all current power plants will have closed.

A slow EPR to come

Successive governments are aware of the problem, but have been slow to act. After long negotiations, EDF started, in 2016, the construction of an EPR in Hinkley, in the west of England. With two reactors with a total capacity of 3.2 gigawatts, it is a juggernaut. But, as elsewhere in the world, the EPR is struggling to take shape. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused delays, pushing the completion date back from 2025 to 2026. Several additional costs have been announced, with the official bill now at 22-23 billion pounds, or 26 billion euros (in 2008 , when EDF bought British Energy, the price envisaged was around ten billion pounds).

Read also Nuclear: EDF announces a delay and an additional cost on its English EPR at Hinkley Point C

Since then, EDF has been pressing for the construction of a second power plant at Sizewell, in the east of England. By making a series of close EPRs, the company promises to significantly reduce costs. But the green light is slow to come. The French electrician was thus unable to close the financing. In an attempt to speed up the process, the British government has put 100 million pounds (116 million euros) into the project and promises to invest 1.7 billion pounds, when all the funding is found.

Despite this official commitment, progress on the Sizewell C file is limited. “When work begins, the supply chain [mise en place pour Hinkley] will have collapsed”fears Dieter Helm, of the University of Oxford. “British nuclear policy has been in the habit for thirty years of having a government announcing a new family of nuclear reactors, followed ten years later by a single plant built”, critic Michael Grubb, of University College London. For him, the cost also becomes prohibitive: “I used to think nuclear was big and cheap, while offshore wind was complicated and expensive. Today it is the opposite. »


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