Is the Scottish Government's anti-nuclear stance the right one?
The imposing, rectangular structure of Torness power station looms large along the A1, wedged between the road and the East Lothian coastline.
Painted the specific shade of Dunbar Grey (named after the town) so it blends into the normally overcast skies, the day I visit it stands out because the UK is, once again, enduring a heatwave caused by climate change. Power stations like Torness could be part of the fight against rising temperatures, but as of this year, it is the last remaining nuclear power station in Scotland.
Since it came online in the 1980s, Torness has generated enough energy to power every single home in Scotland for 28 years. It has also brought highly skilled, well-paid jobs to the local area.
Paul Forrest, the station director, estimates about 80 per cent of the workforce live in East Lothian. “They put about £45m a year into the local community. You can view this power station in many ways. Some people come and look at it as an engineering wonder, I just view it as a massive people-project from start to finish.
“It’s employed me a number of times. It’s given my son a good trade, a good job. We’ve got a track record of promoting within, mostly, so we take on an apprentice at 16 and a lot of our senior staff came up through the apprentice route. We take on graduates from local universities.”
Indeed, walking around the site is it clear the workforce is young. It is also largely male, though Forrest says EDF – the owners of the plant – have initiatives to encourage more women into engineering, including going into schools (though that has not yet restarted post-pandemic).
“I’m not going to pretend that nuclear doesn’t have people who are anti, and they are entitled to their views, absolutely, but in this community we are a well-established business, we’re well accepted, and I think if you went into Dunbar you would be struggling to find anybody who doesn’t know somebody who works here,” Forrest adds.
But Torness is now coming to the end of its life. It is expected to shut down in 2028. Forrest explains: “The life-limiting factor of Torness – and it was the same at Hunterston [B, a nuclear power plant in North Ayrshire which ceased operations in January] – is our graphite core. The graphite core, as it gets older, we get a thing called keyway root cracks. Now, operationally we don’t see them, we don’t feel them, it doesn’t affect the plant in how it operates safely. How it does affect the plant is that we are required to demonstrate that we can withstand a Californian-style seismic event… As the onset of keyway root cracking progresses, that becomes more difficult and therefore at some point, because of the seismic input motion, we will choose to shut this power station down.”
It’s been clear since the 80s that we don’t have to have nuclear
The Scottish Government’s opposition to nuclear means that once Torness closes, that will be the end of nuclear power in Scotland. It is in stark opposition to the approach of the UK Government, which is backing the installation of eight new nuclear reactors by the end of the next decade.
Four of those are already on their way. Hinkley Point C in Somerset is due to open in 2027 (though has been beset by problems and delays since it was announced), while Boris Johnson, in one of his last acts as prime minister, confirmed £700m would be put towards Sizewell C in Suffolk, construction of which will begin shortly.
Speaking on the day of the Sizewell announcement, chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association, Tom Greatrex, tells Holyrood: “It’s a really significant step forward to getting some more firm low-carbon power on the system, which obviously has a big impact in terms of energy security and reducing price of power.”
But he adds: “Frankly, we should have done it a long time ago. It’s hugely disappointing that it’s taken so long to get to this point, given that we’ve known for a very long time that our existing fleet is coming to the end of its generating life and we’ve also known for a very long time that there is absolutely no chance of getting to net zero without nuclear as part of the mix.”
That last statement, however, is contested by some in the scientific community. Andy Stirling, a professor of science and technology policy at the University of Sussex, has been working in this field for over three decades. He says: “Simply looking at the government’s own assessments – albeit often hidden away in the grey literature – it’s been clear since the 80s that we don’t have to have nuclear. When I say we don’t have to, I mean in order to deliver cost effective, secure supplies. Now, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have it. There’s plenty of scope for debate.”
A paper published last month by LUT University in Finland, supported by academics from 14 other institutions, confirms Stirling’s view. Taking evidence from hundreds of studies, it concluded: “In the early 2020s, the consensus has increasingly become that solar PV and wind power will dominate the future energy system and new research increasingly shows that 100 per cent renewable energy systems are not only feasible but also cost effective.”
But Greatrex, who until 2015 was the MP for Rutherglen and Labour’s shadow energy minister, argues that “any rational, sensible policy will always have a mixture of generation sources”. But he is less exercised by the Scottish Government’s stance because the UK Government’s decisions mean Scotland will be able to access nuclear power from the grid. “In one sense, the Scottish Government position – whilst I think it’s not particularly robust in terms of science or logic, I can understand the politics behind it – it doesn’t matter because other bits of the GB system will be able to provide the bits that there’s no political appetite in Scotland to do,” he says.
The Scottish Government, for its part, argues a mixture of renewables, storage and hydrogen offer “the best pathway to net zero by 2045”. The leaps made in renewables in recent years strengthen that argument. Phil Johnstone, a research fellow also at Sussex University’s Science Policy Research Unit, says it is “staggering” that the UK as a whole is “not shouting from the rooftops more about what has happened in Scotland”.
He adds: “It’s gone from less than 30 per cent renewables electricity to nearly 100 per cent in 10 years. And it’s just amazing that you have people in Westminster and the [UK] Government saying Scotland is being very irrational in not having nuclear. I mean, the comparison could not be more stark – what Scotland has done with renewables and what’s happened in 10 years [versus] what has happened with the nuclear renaissance in 10 years.”
He continues: “If you’re looking at net zero and you’re looking at speed and you’re looking at the urgency of the situation and you’re looking on the grounds of cost, if you use these criteria, which are the things you evaluate energy policy from, then it would suggest to me that Scotland is a doing a sensible thing.”
Both he and Stirling say the reason the UK Government has backed nuclear so completely is less to do with net zero, and more to do with military needs. When this argument was put to a senior civil servant by MPs during an inquiry on Hinkley Point C in 2017, they were told: “We have at some point to renew the warheads, so there is very definitely an opportunity here for the nation to grasp in terms of building up its nuclear skills. I do not think that that is going to happen by accident; it is going to require concerted government action to make it happen.”
Indeed, the SNP’s position on nuclear power is linked to their long-standing opposition to Trident. But Stirling says using the civil sector to maintain the nuclear deterrent is “a feasible way of funding it,” if the government so chooses. However, he says there needs to be more transparency, particularly when ultimately the cost of building nuclear plants falls to consumers via energy bills.
And of course, household bills are at the top of the agenda as the cost-of-living crisis continues. The energy price cap is set to increase to more than £3,500 from 1 October and is predicted to continue rising next year.
Any rational, sensible policy will always have a mixture of generation sources
Greatrex argues that had more nuclear power stations already been online, the UK would be in a better place to weather the storm. “If you’re producing electricity from gas and coal, the cost of the fuel input is a very large proportion of that cost,” he says. “Because gas is traded on international markets, it’s hugely volatile in price and so over the last year – and it started well before the invasion of Ukraine, but that’s obviously exacerbated it – the cost of gas has been significant and that means the cost of electricity has gone up. The cheapest electricity on the grid currently in the GB system is coming from our existing nuclear power stations.”
That’s a reversal of the situation in previous years, when the cost of nuclear power far outstripped other sources. When the strike price for Hinkley Point C was agreed at £92.50 per megawatt hour, the wholesale electricity price was less than half that. But the cost of electricity has changed so much recently that last year Bloomberg ran the headline “UK Power Is So High That EDF Hinkley Reactor Looks Good Value”. Prices are even higher today.
Meanwhile the UK Government is preparing for a new type of nuclear. It has committed to building the world’s first prototype nuclear fusion plant, to be online by 2040, as part of its Spherical Tokamak for Energy Production (STEP) programme.
One of the shortlisted sites is Ardeer in North Ayrshire. Professor Declan Diver, convener of the Fusion Forward consortium behind the bid, is excited about the opportunities related to fusion. “The world energy requirement is still rising fast and we, in order to be zero carbon, need to displace the power generated by hydrocarbons at the rate of one conventional fission type power station a year for the next 20 years. We obviously can’t do that.
“Scotland is very, very well positioned for wind and tidal power, and so I acknowledge that that’s fine – but not every country is. The vast majority of Europe is not. STEP is designed as the prototype of a fleet of these power stations. They could be an export industry for Scotland and the UK, because other people will need them.”
The Scottish Government currently takes a neutral stance on nuclear fusion, though when questioned about it during FMQs in June, Nicola Sturgeon said: “We should never close our minds to new technology.”
Diver is hopeful the government will back it. “We get the impression from [Michael] Matheson and others that actually they’re reasonably warmly favourable to it,” he says, “but they will not be able to put that into an official expression of support until their energy review is finished. I understand the reasoning behind it, but it is a little bit frustrating that this is going to be one of the largest infrastructure projects in Britain, certainly the largest in Scotland, and it would be nice to have a slightly more positive, proactive take on it from major government.”
Whether or not nuclear has a future in Scotland, back in Torness, Paul Forrest is focused on ensuring his staff definitely do. He says: “I love nuclear power, you know, I see all the benefits of it and I will be sad when this power station shuts. There’s absolutely no doubt about it.
“But my main focus will be looking after the young people here. I’m approaching this stage in my career and I’ll not be worried, right? But I do owe it to them to look after their livelihoods, think of them and make sure they are well positioned at that point. And I will do that, by the way. I’ve done it at Hunterston and I’ll do it here.”