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21 January 2021

When is a Think Tank not a Think Tank – When it does not think

The Centre for Policy Studies (CPS) has called for a greater investment in nuclear generation in the UK, and been afforded some space in national newspapers to apply pressure to the current government to make its case. Quite clearly it doesn’t actually have one.

The CPS is a right leaning think tank, primarily for creating policy for the in-power conservative party, set up by two prominent conservatives ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and prominent cabinet member through multiple governments, Sir Keith Joseph, both deceased.

Much of the argument in its paper rests on “What if renewables fail?” and suggestions that “Battery Energy Storage is a bit too new to rely on.” The thrust of the argument is in that case we would have to rely on fossil fuels, because nuclear has not had sufficient investment, and wouldn’t that be bad.

The paper is reasonably well informed about many of the energy topics, but it never touches on what this might mean to the UK price of electricity. Already with the emergence of Hinkley Point C as a project, the country has constrained 7% of its energy production to a Chinese backer and a French manufacturer, which is propped up by the French government. The paper calls for more reactors of the type that Hinkley Point represents, and despite their expense, suggests that if it wrote in “late delivery clauses” then the nuclear plants would not be late and would be much cheaper, as if the current crop of politicians simply “didn’t think of that.” Typically each project in Europe is a minimum of ten years to develop and is around ten years late, with cost overruns paid for by the government.

Already Hinkley Point C will provide energy at £92.5 per MWh, around double the price of Wind, and three times the price of solar, which are falling in price. The paper also suggests that more contracts for large, old style, European Pressurised Water Reactors, are allocated, almost to keep everyone’s “hand in” in the nuclear industry. But fails to point out that this brings us back to EDF or Westinghouse or the Japanese conglomerates or the Chinese yet again – no UK firms would benefit, and consumers certainly wouldn’t.

So while it wants UK expertise not to wither on the vine, its believes this will have an influence on Rolls Royce and its UK designed Small Modular Reactor. But while Rethink Energy has no problems with the promised 16 SMRs that Rolls Royce is likely to be awarded over time by the current government, the idea of funding foreign owned giant installations that are late, lead to excessive costs only to charge UK consumers 2 to 3 times the price of electricity, thrills us as a strategy not at all.

But the report does not address this and the report comes over as if it were written by EDF of Hitachi or Westinghouse, pitching for business.

The CPS has done this type of thing before, and successive conservative governments have had this same plan, which involves another 4 or 5 new nuclear plants, paid for out of public money, to produce excessively priced electricity, at some undetermined point in the future, without looking at renewables. It may not surprise you to hear that the CSP has had “climate change denier” tendencies in the past, and doubted the effectiveness of renewables to boot.

Even France has not followed through with the 6 nuclear EPWR orders the Macron government threatened to place with EDF, despite 66% of its energy already coming from nuclear, and provided by a company it virtually owns. Why? Because they are too expensive. The CPS suggests the UK government changes the nuclear permit policies – in a Trumpian style non-scientific approach that is likely to lead to a FukuShima style disaster in the UK.

Investments in solar, especially residential, and wind (which the UK government heartily backs) SMRs, when they arrive and are cheap enough, as well as Battery Energy storage, and Hydrogen, all provide a robust strategy for the UK government, and we could do without the love of biomass and CCUS that the current bunch are investing in. If you added 4 or 5 large nuclear plants on top of that, then it would starve renewables of funding, and leave our energy in the hands of foreign governments, some of them potentially hostile, and leave us paying the highest rate for electricity in all of Europe. The CPS can’t call itself a think tank if it doesn’t actually think these things through.