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The UK's new Civil Nuclear Roadmap to 2050 offers the tantalising prospect of a renaissance for nuclear power. Success hinges on the execution of the nascent proposals being consulted on, as well as wider reforms to the planning system. These demand greater radicalism than is so far implied. Importantly the Labour Party broadly shares the 2050 Roadmap's ambitions in its recently updated plans.
As a firm, we take pride in having advised on the development of Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C. These are set to be the UK's first new nuclear generating stations since 1995. Our role encompassed various aspects including planning, real estate, income support mechanisms, financing, corporate, construction, and nuclear energy and wider regulatory advice. Drawing on this experience and our roles on nuclear projects around the world, we appreciate the UK nuclear sector's highly regarded institutional and regulatory framework. Furthermore, France's experience (see Why Nuclear? box below) demonstrates that, even at this late stage, nuclear could meet even more challenging 2050 energy transition deadlines, with sufficient will. However, the speed of the UK's delivery record since new nuclear's green-light in 2008 shows the status quo is not compatible with the UK's ambition to quadruple nuclear power to 24GW by 2050.
Thankfully the Civil Nuclear Roadmap to 2050 (the 2050 Roadmap) accepts the need to move from the status quo and to give greater clarity and confidence to the nuclear sector and investors on the challenging 2050 timeline. However, we encourage those responding to the consultations, by 10 March and 4 April 2024 respectively, to be robust in helping the government identify potential for streamlining and acceleration. There is scope to do better. Please let us know if you would like to discuss.
Beside its prime function as the UK's delivery body for new nuclear, starting with the SMR competition, the government also sees GBN developing its advisory capacity. Specifically, using its expertise to identify additional supply chain barriers and weaknesses in current policy to reduce investment barriers.
The current nuclear National Policy Statement (EN-6), published in 2011, provides the framework for assessing development consent applications for GW scale nuclear power stations expected to deploy by the end of 2025. This consultation is to inform the development of a new National Policy Statement (EN-7) for the period beyond 2025. The key new context is the anticipation that within that time horizon projects for AMRs that generate both heat and power and SMRs, typically with capacity below 500MW, will be coming forward. So, in contrast to EN-6 which specified just eight sites (all existing nuclear sites) as potentially suitable, EN-7 is proposed to allow developer-led site selection based on site assessment criteria. The site selection criteria are to be the same as those which government used to select the eight sites deemed suitable for GW nuclear in EN-6.
Those criteria, set out in a table in paragraph 4.2.1 of the consultation are extremely high-level and, in essence, are simply a list of the kinds of things that a developer of any type of infrastructure would need to consider when deciding on whether a site is suitable and likely to be justifiable in planning terms (eg, likelihood of flood, tsunami and storm surge, areas of amenity and landscape value, ecological importance). Given that nearly all the criteria are 'discretionary', in practice this means that each developer who wishes to bring forward a project will need to make the case that it is in the right place according to all the usual principles of good town planning practice. That is ok, but it is disingenuous of the government to spin this as a better way of accelerating new nuclear than its previous approach of pre-designating at a policy level the locations where new nuclear should go. The great advantage of designation of appropriate sites at policy level is that the Planning Act 2008 then precludes any questioning of siting when an application goes through the consenting process (because siting has already been settled). Without a positive siting designation by government, it is easy to see vocal sections of the public (particularly in areas not used to living near nuclear) fighting hard during the planning process to make the case that the wrong site has been chosen. Other kinds of infrastructure accept they have to fight their corner in this way in relation to siting (GW nuclear was unique in terms of having siting pre-ordained at policy level). And given that the desirable locations for of smaller-scale nuclear cannot be guessed at currently, we do not see how government could designate appropriate locations even if they wished to. But the reality must be faced that the so-called siting criteria are essentially pointless, and that the much vaunted 'flexibility' of not pre-designating sites is an attempt to make a virtue out of necessity. Our expectation is that the early small-scale nuclear plants brought forward will all wish to site themselves within or next to existing large nuclear (or ex-nuclear) sites in order to benefit from the siting support given by EN-6, and the reduced local opposition in such areas compared with populations to whom nuclear is new and worrying.
In principle, however, the advantage of leaving siting up to developer's discretion is that, for example, it will allow plants to be sited near industrial clusters requiring power and heat, as well as answering some of the challenging questions posed by the large-scale adoption of renewables.
Repowering the UK's former coal fleet?
Repowering the UK's former coal fleet? One approach would be to replace former coal-fired power stations, which have cooling water and grid connections already in place, with SMRs. Terra Praxis is a non-profit organization that exists to de-risk the energy transition. One of the solutions it is working on with its consortium (including our firm on a pro bono basis) is a system to enable the rapid repurposing of coal plants around the world in this way.
National Policy Statements are one of the key planks of the UK's regime for granting consent for "nationally significant infrastructure projects", including nuclear power stations. Stepping back from the current consultation, we are underwhelmed by previous government consultations on planning reform, setting out measures intended to speed up delivery of such projects. Our latest thinking about speeding up consenting to make it compatible with our Net Zero ambitions is discussed here. We make three proposals which, in our view would make a far greater difference than the plethora of measures the Government has so far proposed.
The intention is for the new nuclear National Policy Statement (EN-7) itself to be consulted on in 2024.
Nuclear can deliver enormous system benefits
As with GW scale nuclear, providing reliable baseload may be its key contribution. However, the consultation flags other potential benefits to the UK's energy system and asks for feedback on these and other ideas. Amongst other things it flags the greater potential for ANTs to provide:
An attraction for the UK's regulatory regime for ANTs is the non-prescriptive, goal setting, approach that the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR) takes in relation to satisfying itself on nuclear safety. However, as the government acknowledges, the smaller scale of ANTs means that aspects of the regulatory frameworks may not be appropriate and many more will not be optimised.
This consultation seeks views on issues that government has already identified as well as other suggestions. In terms of legislation, the government's view is no changes are necessary (across everything from specific nuclear regulation, energy regulation more widely, safety to export control legislation).
For nuclear specific regulation, the government's focus is on ensuring regulatory capacity and approaches are optimised. It references steps it has already taken to assist ANTs from a regulatory perspective. In 2017, the government funded an ONR and EA programme to develop their capability and capacity to regulate ANTs and, more recently, modernised the generic design assessment process with ANTs in mind. An area identified for ongoing efficiencies is to collaborate with other sophisticated international regulators in relation to reactor design assessments to streamline processes where practicable. Industry participants will be aware of many other areas where regulatory decision making could yield cost and time saving without impacting safety.
As for GW scale projects, the government is seeking increased value for money for the "Nth of a Kind projects" after the first. There is clearly a tension here with the different kinds of ANTs for which there is a useful role. However, the scale of ambition means there is room for fleets of different kinds within the UK in addition to the potential for global replication which will also assist.
Revenue Support Mechanism
The government's current position is that there is no need to introduce new revenue support mechanisms beyond the nuclear CfD and RAB models used for Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C, respectively (although they welcome feedback on this).
Amongst other things, proponents argue the following can all be ticked off in favour of nuclear energy generation.
Proven track record of rapid energy transition?
Following the 1973 oil crisis, in the 19 years from 1977 to 1996, France built around 60 nuclear reactors (55GW) – more than twice the UK's ambition in less time.
Nuclear power stations have amongst the best track records for training, and sustaining over the long term, high skilled, well-paid jobs where they are located alongside wider community benefits.
Vital role in low-carbon energy security and system resilience?
What will the Labour Party do?
With current consensus expectations for the 2024 General Election, stakeholders will inevitably be considering the Labour Party's new nuclear commitment.
Labour's new campaigning bible, sent to its candidates on 17 January 2024 reaffirms its commitment to new nuclear, broadly in line with Government plans. All the issues now being consulted on would remain relevant.
Note that Labour proposes that the functions of Great British Nuclear would be maintained, but be absorbed into its wider plans for a new Great British Energy.
The contents of this publication are for reference purposes only and may not be current as at the date of accessing this publication. They do not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Specific legal advice about your specific circumstances should always be sought separately before taking any action based on this publication.
© Herbert Smith Freehills 2024