Speech: UK is 'on a mission for fission'

06 December 2021

Net-zero needs nuclear, UK minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change Greg Hands told the country's industry at the Nuclear Industry Association's Nuclear2021 conference in London last week in a strong message of support. The following is the text of his speech.

Greg Hands (Image: Chris McAndrew)

"During my many years as Trade Minister, I was a champion for investment in nuclear. So, I was delighted to take on responsibility for the sector when I was appointed as Energy Minister in September. Especially as this feels like a pivotal point for nuclear in this country, as we step up our strong commitment to the sector.

While 2020 was, undeniably, an annus horribilis for the world, I think it’s fair to say that, despite its challenges, the past year has been filled with much good news for nuclear. The sector asked government for an indication it is serious about building nuclear capacity in the UK. We heard that call, and we have answered it. Over the past year, we have sent signal after signal. A green light that we hope will give investors and businesses the confidence they need to invest in UK nuclear.

From the Energy White Paper to our landmark Net-Zero Strategy, to our new Nuclear Bill, to funding for the fantastic small modular reactors (SMRs) [Rolls-Royce SMR CEO] Tom [Samson] spoke of, we’ve shown our dedication to net-zero and nuclear.

It would be remiss of me to talk about progress without also talking about the difficulties nuclear - like all sectors - has faced during the pandemic. I want to commend our dedicated nuclear workers for rolling up their sleeves and continuing to deliver for the country. Work to construct Hinkley Point C has continued and operations remain smooth at our existing fleet of nuclear reactors. None of this surprises me. Nuclear is a catchword for consistency. Indeed, it is nuclear’s reliability that will make it a linchpin in our efforts to reach net-zero.

Ahead of COP26, we published our landmark Net-Zero Strategy; the blueprint - or, rather, greenprint - for how we'll decarbonise our economy by 2050. I'm pleased to say the Climate Change Committee has labelled it the world's most comprehensive plan to reach net-zero. The challenge now is implementation. But we have made incredible progress already.

Between 1990 and the present day we’ve reduced our emissions by 44%, all while growing our economy by nearly 80%. In 1990, I had just graduated from university. In 2050, all being well, I'll be 85 years old. In my youth, climate change was barely on the radar. In 2050, my hope is that - as I’m enjoying my retirement - it'll be front page news because we will have reached net-zero.

To make that vision a reality, we need to pick up the pace over the next 30 years, achieving a 78% reduction in greenhouse gases and ensuring all the UK's electricity comes from clean sources by 2035. This will require a range of low-carbon technologies - especially new nuclear - to be deployed in large quantities and at speed. We’ll need to unlock the full potential of renewables and flexible technologies but we’ll also need stable, firm, low-carbon power for when the wind doesn't blow, and the sun doesn't shine.

Ladies and gentlemen, net-zero needs nuclear! Not least because of the recent volatility of global gas prices, which provide further impetus to diversify our energy mix and invest in a strong, home-grown energy system to ensure greater energy independence.

We are matching ambition on nuclear with action. In the Net-Zero Strategy we announced a new GBP120 million (USD159 million) Future Nuclear Enabling Fund, to support the deployment of nuclear projects. And, in the first half of 2022, we’ll publish a nuclear roadmap setting out deployment plans for more projects.

In October, we introduced a new nuclear bill to Parliament: The Regulated Asset Base model set out in the bill could bring significant amounts of private investment into a nuclear project at relatively low cost by increasing the pool of private investors to include British pension funds, insurers and other institutional investors from our closest partners. This would lower the cost of capital, and ultimately reduce the end cost of electricity for consumers - an exciting prospect.

To support further investment in nuclear projects, we're also consulting on classifying nuclear as 'green investment' in the UK Taxonomy, which would allow billions to flow into the sector.

When we talk about ‘nuclear projects’, we are backing both large and small. On the bigger end of the spectrum, the government aims to reach a final investment decision this Parliament [before the next general election in May 2024 ] on at least one more large-scale project. We announced up to GBP1.7 billion in the Spending Review to help deliver this objective and have been in constructive negotiations on the Sizewell C project since January. If successful, Sizewell could provide 7% of the UK's current electricity needs, save nine million tonnes of CO2 emissions a year, and create tens of thousands of jobs and will importantly demonstrate that the UK believes in optionality in nuclear.

Moving down the scale, the government has invested a bumper GBP210 million - matched by the company - for Rolls-Royce to develop its design for one of the world's first SMRs. Each 'small' reactor is potentially capable of powering a million homes - the equivalent of a city the size of Leeds. As well as providing energy for the UK, this home-grown project will also create high-quality jobs, helping us level up as we drive emissions down.

Designed in Derby, Rolls-Royce's Merlin engine helped save the free world during World War II. Eighty years later, these British-built SMRs could help us to strengthen energy security and protect the British people into the long term by reducing our reliance on foreign fossil fuel imports.

In the UK we’re on a mission for fission projects - big and small - and we're also on a quest for fusion.

The UK is widely recognised as a world-leader in the most promising fusion energy technologies and the government is supporting this by committing GBP220 million towards the first five-year phase of the Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) programme, which aims to build a prototype fusion power plant in the UK by 2040.

We are also investing GBP184 million into cutting-edge research facilities and infrastructure, to make the UK the best place for fusion innovation. This has been demonstrated already by General Fusion - a Canadian company - deciding to build their fusion demonstrator plant in the UK.

Excellent progress has been made on our commitment to reach demonstration of advanced modular reactors (AMRs) by the early 2030s - with the backing of our GBP385 million Advanced Nuclear Fund.

This summer, we published a Call for Evidence to gather views on the government's preference to support High Temperature Gas Reactors (HTGRs) for the AMR Research, Development & Demonstration Programme.

Following evaluation of responses received, I'm pleased to announce today that we will focus on HTGRs as the technology choice for the programme moving forward - with the ambition for this to lead to a demonstration by the early 2030s. We continue to support the development of all AMRs, as part of wider activities.

Of course, if we're to realise the full potential of the reactors of today and unlock the promise of advanced nuclear in the future, we need a strong UK fuel supply chain to power them. That's why we recently announced up to GBP75 million to preserve and develop the UK's nuclear fuel production capability.

UK nuclear wouldn’t be possible without our talented workforce, without the teams working on safety and security, or without waste and decommissioning.

On skills, we’re committed to ensuring the sector has the talent it needs now and in the future - and that it is diverse. I look forward to the Nuclear Skills Strategy Group’s latest assessment, which will help shape the sector in this decade and beyond.

Nuclear safety and security continue to be top priorities for the government. This year, the new National Security and Investment Act - which will keep the UK open for business, while protecting sensitive areas of the economy like civil nuclear - received Royal Assent.

And I was pleased to note the Chief Nuclear Inspector's annual report, which concluded that the industry has performed well overall on safety, security and safeguards.

Our support for new nuclear is only possible because we have a developed programme for dealing with our legacy, led by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. I was interested to visit Sellafield recently to hear about progress at the site. And I’m pleased to say the siting process for a Geological Disposal Facility - which will support a new generation of nuclear projects - is well underway.

It’s no exaggeration to say that COP26 in Glasgow saw the largest nuclear presence on the ground in the history of COP. The world is waking up to the role nuclear will play in tackling in climate change. And the UK is taking a central role in rousing the globe from its slumber.

Almost exactly one year ago, the Prime Minister published his Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. It set out our ambition to deliver new and advanced nuclear power. In just a year, we have seen incredible progress towards that goal: huge public and private investment, a comprehensive Net-Zero Strategy that sets a clear direction, and unprecedented representation of the sector on the world stage at COP26. It is that momentum that we need to build on to realise the inalienable truth that net zero needs nuclear."