Climate change: SNP's dismissal of nuclear energy is virtue signalling that will drive bills up and harm drive towards net-zero carbon emissions – Liam Kerr MSP

Anyone wondering about the SNP government’s latest stance on nuclear energy will get some clues from a recent soft-ball parliamentary exchange.
Nuclear energy, produced at power stations like Torness, can provide much-needed stability to the National Grid (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Nuclear energy, produced at power stations like Torness, can provide much-needed stability to the National Grid (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Nuclear energy, produced at power stations like Torness, can provide much-needed stability to the National Grid (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

After being cued up in a Holyrood question, Net Zero, Energy and Transport Secretary Michael Matheson made his feelings clear.

“Nuclear power is a bad deal for consumers,” he told MSPs, adding focusing on energy sources like windfarms would be a priority for his government.

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An unequivocal statement of position from which it surely follows that if the nationalists object to nuclear energy on the grounds of consumer costs and it hampering the route to a cleaner environment, they will have analysed the data, the science and the evidence, prior to making this claim. Not unusually, it would appear not.

But I have and I reached a decidedly different conclusion.

In support of his claim that nuclear power drove up energy bills, Mr Matheson argued the costs of energy coming from the Hinkley C plant in Somerset had risen by 25 per cent since 2016. He stated that by 2030, that plant alone will have added almost £40 a year to the bill of the average householder in the UK.

Neither assertion is accurate.

On his first point, the 25 per cent hike Mr Matheson appears to reference is a construction cost that will be paid solely by owners EDF, not by the billpayer. The price of electricity from Hinkley to the taxpayer was fixed in 2013 under a Contract for Difference – it cannot rise.

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On the second, the gas crisis and low wind meant that the price of electricity from this August has been about £180/MWh – twice the £92.50/MWh deal struck for nuclear power from Hinkley C in 2013. If these conditions last until 2030, and with more nuclear retirements and more demand for power, Hinkley Point C would pay money back to the taxpayer.

So, it seems that the contribution made by Hinkley could help to keep bills lower by 2030 than they would otherwise have been.

It is also worth noting that our current nuclear stations are the cheapest, most reliable source of clean electricity. Power from Hunterston B and Torness in the autumn of 2021 was £45/MWh – steady, predictable and affordable. Hunterston saved consumers £360 million since the energy crisis began, equivalent to £152 for every Scottish household.

This is the prism through which the SNP and Greens should be looking at the cost of energy production. Then there’s the reliability argument for challenging the Cabinet Secretary’s rhetoric.

There is an immense cost to the taxpayer when the wind stops blowing, rendering turbines temporarily redundant, or indeed the reverse when too much energy is generated for the National Grid to cope with.

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When this happens, it triggers payouts from the public purse to energy companies of hundreds of millions of pounds. One reason the energy price crisis occurred was because it wasn’t windy enough in 2021.

Thanks to the Scottish government’s recent positioning on North Sea oil and gas, which could effectively throw 100,000 jobs under a bus, we are ever-more reliant on gas, imported from countries with less robust environmental and regulatory regimes.

Nuclear power stations don’t have these issues, and these substantial hidden costs can therefore be averted.

They can provide much-needed stability to a grid which, as has been shown repeatedly, simply cannot rely solely on renewable energy.

Surely every government would want to explore a mixed-source solution, one in which nuclear and renewables can happily and helpfully co-exist?

It’s good enough for France and Sweden. They happen to have lower emissions than countries like Germany, which is shunning nuclear energy in favour of coal-power stations, which the Earth’s atmosphere doesn’t appreciate.

So if the priority is reducing carbon emissions, surely nuclear has an obvious role in generating a significant proportion of the country’s power while not pumping emissions into the air.

The Scottish Conservatives recognise the benefits of a technology which will keep bills down, provides security of supply when the wind doesn’t blow or gas requires to be imported, has carbon emissions, post-installation, roughly equivalent to that of wind generated power, and can support thousands of Scottish jobs.

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Indeed, the UK’s Climate Change Committee suggests more than a third of electricity should come from reliable sources like nuclear.

It ought to be another constituent part of Scotland’s energy future. Equally importantly, no-one is suggesting building a nuclear power station in every part of the country.

Any new strategy would have to be carefully and sensitively carried out. It would require a far more careful approach than we have seen thus far from the SNP in relation to onshore windfarms. Again, these are clearly and absolutely part of the solution to the UK’s future energy needs.

But there are innumerable examples from across the country of SNP ministers forcing through huge projects in the face of local people, local businesses, local planners and local elected representatives saying they are unsuitable.

Yet the SNP is happy to do that because the building of windfarms fits its dogmatic, blinkered, divisive approach to energy production which appears to be more rooted in student politics and virtue-signalling than environmental, economic and macro-political reality.

Which, of course, explains their stance on nuclear. It’s nothing to do with the evidence on consumer costs or green credentials.

The nationalists simply don’t like following the science and doing the analysis. What they do like is conflating nuclear power with a nuclear deterrent because they think that that’s what the public do. And making sure that where “Westminster” is in favour of something, the SNP are against.

It’s classic SNP behaviour, playing to an imagined gallery rather than cold, hard reality. Ironically, they will succeed only in driving up the energy bills of Scots and hampering our progress towards a net-zero future.

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Liam Kerr is a Scottish Conservative MSP for North East Scotland and Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport

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