Tom Greatrex: Nuclear energy is power of future not just past

The mighty Torness provided 8.7Twh of Britain's 60.6TWh of nuclear-generated power last year. Picture: TSPL
The mighty Torness provided 8.7Twh of Britain's 60.6TWh of nuclear-generated power last year. Picture: TSPL
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TORNESS powers 2.1 million homes so plans to keep it in operation until 2030 are very welcome, writes Tom Greatrex

The announcement this week of plans to extend the lifetime of Torness nuclear power station on the east coast to 2030 was obviously a welcome move for the workforce and local supply chain, but also for our security of supply and mission to minimise carbon emissions. As the Scottish government made clear when they welcomed the lifetime extension, it is a tribute to the expertise of the operational staff at Torness. It also underpins the 75 per cent of power generated in Scotland last year which comes from low carbon sources.

One-third of the power generated in Scotland comes from the two nuclear power stations – Torness in the east and Hunterston in the west – enabling excess electricity produced when onshore wind farms are reaping the benefit of our climate, to feed into the Britain-wide electricity grid. While it remains the case that, through grid connections linking Scotland to England, on part of one day in four power flows from south to north when the wind is calmer, the existence of baseload nuclear power in Scotland’s generation mix helps to ensure the electricity is there when demand is highest. In that context, the importance of the lifetime extension at Torness can not be overstated.

The station, which powers 2.1 million homes, supports 700 jobs and pays £40 million in wages each year, makes a significant economic contribution to the economy in and around East Lothian. The extended lifetime will safeguard high quality and skilled jobs at a time when economic confidence is uncertain. Last year, the power generated across Britain’s nuclear fleet was 60.6TWh (terawatt hours) – 8.7Twh of this was from Torness alone – with output reaching the highest level for a decade and 50 per cent higher than in 2008. While the second reactor was offline for part of 2015, reactor 1 has been running continuously for almost a year, maintaining a dependable and consistent output of electricity generation in Scotland.

Iberdrola’s decision not to invest in making Longannet compliant with European air quality regulations, and the difficult economics of much thermal generation also leading to other closure dates having been announced, mean that both in Scotland and across the whole of Britain, renewables and nuclear will have to work harder, and work together, to maintain security of supply.

Together nuclear, along with new wind and solar and long-standing hydro power make up three-quarters of the power generated in Scotland. These low-carbon technologies combined make a significant contribution to reducing emissions from homegrown energy sources. Extending the life of Torness means the avoidance of seven million tonnes of CO2 – the equivalent of taking 3.3 million cars off the road – that’s more than all of the cars currently on the road in Scotland.

The additional running time for Torness will help maintain that position, and will continue to contribute to the ambitious carbon emissions reduction targets until 2030. That is important in the medium term, but the longer term challenges for our energy mix beyond the next decade remain.

Too often, it seems it is also too easy to indulge in endless and circular arguments about the merits of different technologies set up in opposition to each other, without acknowledging that the prize is in achieving the optimum mix between the best features of ways of generating, storing, distributing and saving power at a time when decarbonisation of heating, transport, industry and power will increase the overall levels of demand for electricity. Electrification of train lines and more people using electric cars is undoubtedly good for the environment, but increases demand for power as a consequence. Nuclear-generated electricity has an important part to play in providing the bedrock of low carbon, baseload power which complements other forms of generation in a balanced mix.

While industry and investors will look to government to set the policy framework, it is also the responsibility of the energy sector as a whole to encourage a joined up and inclusive approach. The nuclear expertise in Scotland is already significant – as well as stations currently operating, and those being decommissioned – there is manufacturing and supply chain expertise too. For example, Weir Group’s technology is found in new and existing nuclear power stations around the world. Strathclyde University’s recently established Advanced Nuclear Research Centre underlines the cutting edge academic and technical expertise we already have.

That is just one aspect of the longstanding energy expertise that is available in Scotland. It is an enviable resource that should be utilised to help make a contribution to addressing the enduring energy challenges, both in Scotland specifically but also as part of the integrated energy system which serves all of Britain. While different sources of generation may be best sited in different locations, it is through a balanced generation mix that those challenge can best be met.

If we are serious about security of supply while reducing emissions in power generation at a time when demand for power will increase from heat and transport, nuclear will need to be part of the energy landscape in the future as much as it has been for the past 40 years.

• Tom Greatrex is the chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association, the trade body for the civil nuclear industry