UK sets aside $25 billion to establish fleet of new nuclear reactors

It could be six years before the first project is given the green light.
Ameya Paleja
Stock image of a nuclear reactor and cooling towers
Stock image of a nuclear reactor and cooling towers 

The UK has set aside a hefty sum of 20 billion pounds (US$25 billion) to build a new fleet of nuclear reactors under a newly launched independent body called Great British Nuclear (GBN), The Guardian reported.

UK's tryst with nuclear reactors goes back seven decades, when the Winston Churchill-led government built the world's first nuclear reactor in 1953. However, the following decades saw stiff opposition to nuclear power projects and successive governments stopped commissioning projects at newer sites.

Currently, there are nine nuclear power plants in the region, but by 2028 seven of these are expected to be in various stages of decommissioning. Last year, the fallout from the Russian aggression in Ukraine sent energy prices through the roof in the UK and the government is looking to secure its energy future away from fossil fuels.

Great British Nuclear

Grant Shapps, the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero in the UK, formally launched the Great British Nuclear (GBN), an independent body to aid the delivery of new nuclear projects, this week.

Referring to the reluctance to commission new nuclear plants in the past as a "colossal mistake", Shapps said that the GBN would herald the beginning of a "new nuclear age, a renaissance in Britain’s nuclear industry.”

A tender published alongside the GBN launch called for contracts to build a fleet of small modular reactors (SMR) which are much smaller than the currently operational nuclear facilities such as Hinkley Point C.

The document said that one to four awards could be made and the government has set aside a sum of $25 billion toward design development and construction funding.

A low-carbon energy source

The focus has shifted back to nuclear energy after the impact of climate change has been felt in many parts of the world. Last summer, rivers in Europe saw the worst drought in 500 years, and land temperatures have soared beyond 104 Fahrenheit (40oC) in many regions.

UK sets aside $25 billion to establish fleet of new nuclear reactors
Artist's representation of a nuclear reactor core

The UK has been extensively investing in offshore wind farms but also needs a reliable source of power when the winds don't blow. Nuclear power plants offer a low-carbon option but between commissioning and operation, the project could last years, if not a decade.

GBN has been tasked with increasing nuclear energy's contribution to the energy mix in the UK to 25 percent in the next two and half decades. Currently, the number stands at 15 percent but will drop considerably as plants are shut down toward the end of the decade.

Small modular reactors (SMR) such as those developed by Rolls-Royce offer a quicker way to set up nuclear plants, but at 300 MW, they are much smaller in capacity than conventional ones. The recent progress made by China in putting together a commercial-scale SMR boosts confidence in the technology.

Shapps added that the government was stepping in to add more certainty to the nuclear energy market since previous approaches had failed.

Critics of nuclear energy, however, have called this a "bad bet" and pointed out that time-consuming projects take resources away from renewable projects that can be set up quickly.

Shapps also pointed out that the funding set aside was not a "spending commitment," and it could take six years to even make a decision on giving the green light to projects, The Guardian reported.

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