Boris Johnson pushes for more nuclear power as energy crisis takes hold

Boris Johnson is set to outline to industry bosses on Monday what a minister called his “gung ho” approach to boosting Britain’s nuclear power sector, while officials draw up plans that aim to increase capacity fivefold by 2050.

The PM pledged this month to make “a series of big new bets on nuclear power,” and government insiders say that could mean building at least half a dozen big new power plants between 2030 and 2050.

Rishi Sunak, Chancellor, last week put the brakes on Johnson’s plans to present an energy security strategy this week amid Treasury Department fears about the cost to the public purse. New nuclear power stations require almost £20 billion to be built each and the industry is vulnerable to cost overruns.

Sunak, who is delivering his spring declaration this week, is trying to keep spending low to give him room for tax cuts. “We must continue to work on the nuclear strategy before we move forward,” said an ally of the Chancellor.

But a cabinet minister said: “Boris has had something of an evangelical conversion in recent months – he was really enthusiastic about nuclear power.” The energy strategy is due by the end of the month.

The war in Ukraine and soaring natural gas prices have fueled Johnson’s desire to boost Britain’s domestic energy supply, and his new strategy will include plans for a major expansion of wind and solar power.

But the new nuclear strategy, designed to breathe life into a sector plagued by planning and financial difficulties, will be the trickiest and most difficult to implement as ministers push for a “net-zero” emissions target by 2050.

Government insiders say they expect the new energy strategy will set a target for nuclear power generation by 2050 that would represent a huge increase over existing plans.

All but one of the UK’s existing fleet of six nuclear power plants are due to be phased out by 2030 only 4.45 GW nuclear capacity — Half performance compared to the beginning of the decade.

But an official working on the energy strategy said a target of 24 GW by 2050 is “reasonable”; Each large new nuclear power plant, like the one under construction at Hinkley Point C, can generate just over 3 GW.

A bipartisan pro-atom group MEPs have called on ministers to draw up a roadmap calling for 15GW of new nuclear power generation by 2035 and 30GW by 2050. Installed nuclear power capacity reached a peak of 12.7 GW in 1995.

Johnson will host a roundtable with nuclear industry leaders on Monday to discuss UK domestic energy security and nuclear projects, including large power plants and small modular reactors (SMRs).

Downing Street said the Prime Minister will discuss “how government and industry can work together to remove obstacles and move future nuclear projects in the UK forward faster and more cheaply”.

But the problems in delivering the program are significant. Opposition from the Treasury Department is delaying progress on plans to build a new nuclear power station at Wylfa in Anglesey, according to senior government officials.

Wylfa has the potential to become Britain’s third major project in the new nuclear program – behind Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C – but is on hiatus.

Hitachi, the Japanese conglomerate, dealt a major blow to the government when it abandoned plans to build a nuclear power plant in Wylfa in 2019 – and wrote off $2.8 billion for the project.

In the meantime, the US nuclear company Westinghouse has formed a consortium with the construction company Bechtel to revive the plans. The companies want to build either one or two nuclear reactors on the site, along with – possibly – a few SMRs of the type being developed by Rolls-Royce.

Johnson is said to be excited about Wylfa’s prospects for accelerating the nuclear program.

But figures from the Treasury Department, including Sunak, are said to be more cautious, as the program’s rollout would require generous support from the government and taxpayers.

“It’s not that Rishi is saying no to Wylfa, but there is a sense of caution in the Treasury that seems to be delaying progress,” said a senior government official. Boris Johnson pushes for more nuclear power as energy crisis takes hold

Adam Bradshaw

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