Doubts over the future of Sizewell C are just the latest manifestation of the mixed messages from the Conservatives over the UK energy strategy, writes Peter Sibley. Rishi Sunak must be clear and convincing if we are really to become world leaders in low carbon and renewable energy production 

With world leaders gathered for COP27 in Egypt against the backdrop of the World Meteorological Organisation’s (WMO) announcement that Europe is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the globe, there are plenty of reminders of the steps that must be taken in order to mitigate climate change.

Peter Sibley, energy sector lead, Hydrock

Peter Sibley is divisional director (nuclear) and energy sector lead at Hydrock

Instead, what we got from No 10 last Friday was an unexpected announcement about Sizewell C, the landmark nuclear project set to deliver up to 7% of the UK’s electricity.

I don’t know about you, but I am still reeling from that day’s double U-turn. We woke up to news that the project was “under review” and then, just hours later, Downing Street was flatly denying the claim and reaffirming its commitment to the Suffolk plant.

It made the government look foolish and set hares running unnecessarily, undermining investor confidence in the process. It is a situation that the sector has become all too familiar with – this latest policy “see-saw” demonstrates the scale at which the energy industry is being left in the dark.

Rishi Sunak’s to-ing and fro-ing on the issue of global warming has already been evident, with initial uncertainty about whether he would even attend the international climate change conference in Sharm el-Sheikh.

Hopefully one good thing to come out of last Friday’s debacle is that the government has realised it needs to set out its position clearly

Even after his warm words and message of hope to the conference last night, the impression remains of a prime minister who has switched back and forth on previously iron-clad commitments around nuclear made by Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. We now need a clear and loud promise from the government to protect our energy supplies.

If it does not deliver, we will struggle to meet our ever-increasing demands on the grid and undermine our efforts to become world leaders in low carbon and renewable energy production.

Hopefully one good thing to come out of last Friday’s debacle is that Sunak has realised that the government needs to set out its position clearly – not just on the nuclear question but on its entire energy security strategy – in the upcoming Autumn statement.

Rolling back on Johnson’ energy security strategy?

Nuclear is one of the only large-scale energy technologies that can balance the UK’s complex needs, ranging from demand, security of supply, competitive pricing and decarbonisation. That is why it was an obvious choice for Johnson to prioritise and became a cornerstone of his energy security strategy.

This championed renewable energy in all its forms, from the multi-modal, gigawatt generation plants to small modular reactors (SMRs), windfarms and green hydrogen.

While the war has accelerated our thinking and policy initiatives on renewable energy, this should have been happening years ago

His policy rigour for renewable energies, as well as nuclear, was made all the more important by the geopolitical climate, as the war in Ukraine showed just how precarious our energy supplies are and demonstrated the urgent need to find alternatives to fossil fuels. While the war has accelerated our thinking and policy initiatives on renewable energy, this should have been happening years ago.

If we are to reach net zero, clear government impetus is needed to attract investment in the renewables sector. Global clean energy investment currently stands at $1.3 trillion, but over $4 trillion is needed by 2030 to reach net zero.

However, the political see-sawing will be extremely off-putting to investors, underlining the point that clear communication and collaboration with industry experts is critical if we are going to attempt to stem the tide of global warming.

Sunak’s policy seesaw is jeopardising the UK’s future energy mix

We are all too aware that the Conservatives are on shaky ground and Sunak and his chancellor Jeremy Hunt are trying to steady the ship amid hugely challenging economic circumstances. Friday’s events showed the risk caused by the repeated government churn that makes it so difficult to make strides in energy and sustainability, hindering our route to net zero.

One thing we can surmise is that there have clearly been discussions inside Downing Street about reviewing Sizewell C. Otherwise the BBC’s business editor would not have reported it. To hear that a review was even being entertained is extremely worrying as, just last month, Truss and President Macron pledged “full support” for the plant and agreements had been worked up with EDF.

Before that, Johnson had announced his intention to build eight new reactors within the next eight years – signalling a clear political will for nuclear.

The immediate backlash against a potential Sizewell delay highlighted the frustration of Britain’s engineering and scientific industries which have been standing primed to deliver this strategy. Indeed it has already been funded with millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money.

So this is a time for confident leadership and trust in the engineers and scientists who have the expertise to develop solutions for the long-term benefit of society. Sunak and Hunt should be working more closely than ever with technology vendors, nuclear regulators, site owners, investors and the supply chain to establish the right conditions for successful implementation of nuclear energy – gifting the UK the platform to launch an economically and environmentally beneficial energy strategy.

Strength in diversity – building a future-proofed energy portfolio

The government should be focused on the development of a diverse, decarbonised energy infrastructure portfolio. The UK has an opportunity to lead the way, combining firm nuclear-derived energy with weather-dependent renewables, which together offer security of supply, low carbon credentials and long-term price competitiveness.

Nuclear should play a key role. The aspirational targets to generate 15GW of electricity from nuclear capacity by 2035 and provide 25% of all energy by 2050 set out by the Johnson administration shone a light on the level of work required. Any delays to Sizewell C will be a backward step, but nuclear development needs to take place at all scales – from gigawatt-scale developments through to small and advanced modular reactors (SMRs and AMRs) of various designs.

Ironically, last Friday marked the response deadline for the Future Nuclear Enabling Fund (FNEF), which will provide up to £120m of funding to applicants, most of whom are expected to be SMR vendors.

Wind, solar and other forms of renewables can exceed collectively what Sizewell C or any other plant can produce alone and help to fill the energy gap

Great British Nuclear (GBN), still to be formally launched, will undoubtedly have a crucial part to play, with a mandate that should include working with government to iron out key challenges: the identification and promotion of viable sites for SMRs and further gigawatt-scale new-build projects; ensuring investment conditions are attractive and in line with green taxonomy; supporting wider stakeholder engagement; working with developers to secure their manufacturing supply chains; and delivering on the commitments set out in the energy security strategy.

Clearly, nuclear is just one part of the solution. When done right, wind, solar and other forms of renewables can exceed collectively what Sizewell C or any other plant can produce alone and help to fill the energy gap.

Perhaps the sweet spot could be as much as 30-35% energy production from nuclear, with wind, solar and other forms of renewables taking up the majority of the supply. This would be supported by short and long-term duration battery storage, as well as hydrogen, building on the government’s ambition to double the UK’s hydrogen production to up to 10GW by 2030 across all sectors.

Yet, renewables are not the only panacea. The lifetime of a wind turbine is much shorter than that of a nuclear plant, and there are issues of availability of land, siting and consenting, both on and off-shore.

Wind power, solar and hydro-electric dams are often turned into political footballs, with the Conservatives reluctant to build on the green belt or farmland for fear of angering the party’s base.

Let’s not waste time on indecision

Hopefully, Friday’s head-spinning events have served a warning to the new prime minister to think more carefully before he seeks to undo some of his predecessors’ more enlightened policies. The mixed messages coming from Downing Street about Sizewell C, and the endless uncertainties over support for renewables – from increased investment in wind to the use of solar on available land – are a classic case of political instability holding back proper long-term thinking that should have a generational positive impact on energy resilience and carbon mitigation.

Uncertainty has a negative impact on business growth in the renewables sector, with a knock-on to job creation and wealth.

Our world is heating up faster than we expected, and we don’t have time for political indecision or game-playing. It is time to put the country before politics. Let us hope that  Sunak sees sense.

Peter Sibley is divisional director (nuclear) and energy sector lead at Hydrock. He also sits on the UK’s Nuclear Industry Council (NIC)