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  • Jeremy Gordon

Why are we here?

Preparing to moderate a session on the economic benefits of nuclear at Tim Yeo's NNWI Forum 2019 I decided to look at the subject from first principles.

Here I share my opening remarks from the session, which featured excellent presentations and discussion between Sue Ferns Deputy Secretary General of Prospect, Fiona Reilly of FiRe Energy, Charles Hart of NNWI and a great audience.

Whatever you are doing it is important to be clear about your motivations – the reasons 'why' you do what you do. Keeping these needs, values and principles in mind will guide your decision making and maintain your drive to reach the goal, whether it be large or small.

And this is relevant to everyone. It doesn't matter whether you are in a leadership position, or elsewhere in the hierarchy. Everyone has a role in successfully navigating the group to the goal, and the exact definition of the goal is usually less important than the reason 'why' we have set that goal.

As a communicator in this industry my own role is to support anyone seeking to increase understanding of nuclear power because I believe we need it to face the sustainable development challenges the world needs to overcome.

Whatever your role, having clarity of purpose is important for the duration of any long timescale project as well as at any decision points when you are forced to make compromises along the way.

Now, as energy professionals we are clear that our highest priority, our reason for being, our primary 'why', is to provide the power and the fuel that society needs on a daily basis, and, in addition, a small amount of headroom for growth and contingency. This ensures that people have the freedom to both live their lives and to efficiently get on with their chosen work.

Beyond those tangible needs some deeper reasons for excellence in the energy industry come into focus. Getting our work right in the energy sector means that society avoids a lot of problems, such as expensive imports of energy and fuel as well as the insecurity that comes with relying too much on other jurisdictions.

Low emission sources of power like wind, nuclear and solar decisively cut the pollution which would otherwise harm our health and further accelerate changes to the climate, which are already alarming.

Lastly, seeing as we have this method of generating electricity using nuclear reactors, there are specific benefits that come with using it. For example:

  • Nuclear facilities create jobs, which on average are longer lasting, better paid and more highly skilled than those in most other industries

  • There are almost 64,000 of these desirable jobs for UK workers both inside the industry and in the ecosystem of manufacturing and services that support it, with around 7000 roles coming available each year

  • Only a handful of countries have this depth of expertise

  • Oxford Economics and the Nuclear Industry Association believe each of those people contributes £96,600 in gross value added to the economy per year

Prodigious innovation and optimisation in offshore wind technology have seen it scale up, cut costs and grow to deliver about 17% of our electricity – and up to 30% on a good day. Solar has grown too and nuclear has stayed solid as a rock at around 20%. We have seen excellent performance from the fleet. Along with gas, the clean sources are seeing off coal and the UK is making gradual progress towards a truly clean energy system. It’s fair to say the UK stands out as a developed country that is getting it right.

We have only to look California, which is comparable in the size of its economy and its energy consumption to the UK, to see the consequences of getting it wrong. Despite paying more and more for their power, a failure to ensure fire safety around transmission lines has led to huge blackouts, leaving people with less capability to cope with fires which went ahead and happened anyway.

Beyond city lights a fire rages across the entire horizon
The Maria fire (Image: Jeff Ontiv)

There's a hot debate over who is to blame for California's problems. Although some people point out that the number of fires this year has actually been less than normal, it's also true that scientists think a small temperature rise there has made eight times more area susceptible to fire than before. And the legalistic culture in the US also shares some blame – utility PGE has had to declare bankruptcy because of liabilities from fires in the last couple of years.

This is distant to me and I wouldn't pretend to understand the local issues, but it is clear that California is not alone in facing resilience issues related to climate change. It was 40 degrees this summer with impacts on the cooling and performance of nuclear power plants all over Europe. Therefore, we have to expect nuclear power's ability to absorb impacts of adverse conditions, adapt to them, and to recover will be increasingly important and valuable.

Global average temperatures have already risen by 1℃ from pre-industrial levels and show no signs of stopping. We are heading full speed into far bigger problems regarding our wellbeing than we've ever seen before.

So that's why I'm confident that the benefits of nuclear as an always-on supply of electricity that enables our lives at home and at work, enhances our country's independence, and decisively avoids environmental problems stands to play a huge role underpinning whatever social and economic changes we devise – or are forced on us – in the coming century.

NNWI Forum 2019 was held at Norton Rose Fulbright's London offices on 6 November 2019


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