Aimee Watson, a lawyer at DWF Law LLP explores the future of Scotland’s nuclear energy capacity.
Nuclear power has been a part of Scotland’s domestic generating capacity since 1964 when its first nuclear power station, Hunterston A in North Ayrshire, was opened.
At present, Scotland has two operating nuclear power stations, namely Hunterston B in North Ayrshire and Torness in East Lothian, both of which are owned by EDF Energy.
EDF Energy did, however, recently announce that Hunterston B nuclear power station will be decommissioned earlier than planned and this process will begin no later than 7 January 2022. It was due to continue in operation until March 2023.
Hunterston B first began generating electricity in 1976 and has a generating capacity of 965MW but has encountered issues in recent years due to cracks in the graphite cores of its two reactors.
Reactor 3 had been offline since 2018 and reactor 4 has been offline since December 2019. Following an investigation, reactor 3 was allowed to restart in August 2020 but only for a period of approximately 6 months. EDF plans to apply to extend the life for one final 6-month period before commencing the decommissioning process. EDF await a decision on whether reactor 4 can restart for a similar 6 month period.
Torness has been in operation since 1988 and has a generating capacity of 1190MW. It is due to remain operational until 2030 at the earliest.
The percentage share that nuclear energy contributes to Scotland’s overall energy output has been falling for a number of years and will reduce further given the planned early decommissioning of Hunterston B.
In 2018, nuclear power contributed 28.2% of the electricity generated in Scotland (a decrease from 36.8% in 2017 due to outages at Hunterston B in late 2018). Renewables on the other hand accounted for 54.9% of electricity generated in Scotland during 2018, including 40.2% attributable to wind, and fossil fuels accounted for 15.7% of electricity generated.
During the same period in England and Wales, which has 6 operating nuclear power stations, nuclear power accounted for 18.7% of electricity generated and renewables accounted for 28.7% (including 12.5% attributable to wind), whereas fossil fuels produced 49.6% of electricity generated.
Scottish government position
The Scottish Government is opposed to the development of new nuclear power stations in Scotland using current technologies.
Although the Scottish Government recognises the contribution of nuclear power in Scotland’s current energy mix and is supportive of prolonging the operating lifespans of its current nuclear power stations to ensure the security of supply, they expect its contribution to decreasing as electricity generation from renewable and other low carbon sources increases.
The Scottish Government is of the opinion that the economics of nuclear power stations are prohibitive given the falling costs of renewable energy and storage technologies and that nuclear power represents poor value for consumers given that the contract awarded by the UK Government for Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in Somerset will result in consumers contributing towards its operation until 2060 (where the strike price for generated electricity is not achieved).
The Scottish Government’s priority is to continue to support Scotland’s renewable resources and promote storage and flexibility.
Although the Scottish Government does not have the power to pass laws on certain energy matters, including regulatory arrangements, which are reserved to the UK Government, the grant of consent and planning permission is a devolved matter meaning the Scottish Government has the power to pass laws in this area including with regard to new nuclear power stations.
The position of the Scottish Government on nuclear power is in contrast with the UK Government, which is of the opinion that nuclear power has an important role to play in the delivery of energy to meet their targets for low carbon and affordable energy.
As such, it is the UK Government’s policy to encourage new nuclear power stations to be built.
The UK Government’s position has, however, suffered a recent set back following the announcement by a Japanese company, Hitachi, that it is abandoning plans to build a new nuclear power station at Wylfa Newydd on Anglesey off the coast of North Wales.
Hitachi had suspended this project in January 2019 amid rising costs and a failure to agree on funding with the UK Government and stated in its recent announcement that the investment environment has become increasingly severe due to the impact of covid-19.
A UK Government spokesperson has confirmed, following this announcement, that nuclear will continue to play a key role in the UK’s future energy mix and reiterated that they remain willing to discuss new nuclear projects with any viable companies and investors wishing to develop sites in the UK, including North Wales.
However, the reasons behind the abandonment raise doubts about the future of nuclear power in the UK.
Although the early decommissioning of Hunterston B will reduce the contribution of nuclear power to Scotland’s energy mix earlier than was planned, nuclear power will continue to form part of Scotland’s energy mix until such time as Torness is decommissioned and may continue thereafter if there is a change in policy.
Given Hitachi’s recent announcement, it is unclear what effect this will have on the contribution of nuclear power in England and Wales but the UK Government remain committed to it, with a revived focus on small modular reactors as an alternative to the scale of new stations being built at Hinkley Point C and proposed at Wylfa Newydd and Moorside in Cumbria, which will likely create further differences in the energy mix in Scotland and the energy mix in England and Wales in the future.