Boris Johnson in ‘gung ho’ push for more nuclear power as energy crisis starts to bite

Boris Johnson will on Monday sketch out to industry bosses what one minister called his “gung ho” approach to boosting Britain’s nuclear power sector, as officials draw up plans that could target a fivefold increase in capacity by 2050.

The prime minister vowed this month to make “a series of big new bets on nuclear power” and government insiders say this could imply the construction of at least half a dozen big new stations between 2030 and 2050.

Rishi Sunak, chancellor, last week applied the brakes to Johnson’s plans to set out an energy security strategy this week, amid Treasury fears about the cost to the public purse. New nuclear power stations each require close to £20bn to build and the industry is prone to cost overruns.

Sunak, who presents his Spring Statement this week, is trying to hold down spending to give him space to cut taxes. “We need to do more work on the nuclear strategy before we press ahead,” said one ally of the chancellor.

But one cabinet minister said: “Boris has had something of an evangelical conversion, in the past few months — he has been really gung-ho for nuclear.” The energy strategy is due before the end of the month.

The war in Ukraine and the spiralling cost of natural gas has heightened Johnson’s desire to boost Britain’s domestic energy supplies and his new strategy will set out plans for a big expansion of wind and solar power.

But the new nuclear strategy, intended to breathe life into a sector beset by planning and financial difficulties, will be the most sensitive and difficult to deliver as ministers push towards a “net zero” emissions target in 2050.

Government insiders say they expect the new energy strategy will set out a target for nuclear power generation by 2050 that would represent a huge increase on existing plans.

All but one of Britain’s existing fleet of six nuclear power stations are due to be retired by 2030, leaving just 4.45GW of nuclear capacity — half the output compared to the start of the decade.

But one official working on the energy strategy said a target of 24GW by 2050 would be “reasonable”; each big new nuclear station, such as the one under construction at Hinkley Point C, can generate just over 3GW.

A cross-party pro-nuclear group of MPs has called on ministers to produce a road map calling for 15GW of new nuclear generation by 2035 and 30GW by 2050. Nuclear installed capacity peaked at 12.7GW in 1995.

Johnson will on Monday host a roundtable of leaders in the nuclear industry to discuss domestic energy security and nuclear projects in the UK, including large-scale power stations and small modular reactors (SMRs).

Downing Street said the prime minister would discuss “how government and industry can work together to remove barriers and progress future nuclear projects in the UK more quickly and cheaply”.

But the problems of delivering the programme are considerable. Treasury resistance is delaying the progress of plans to build a new nuclear power station at Wylfa in Anglesey, according to senior government figures.

Wylfa has the potential to be the UK’s third big project in the new nuclear programme — behind Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C — but is in a state of hiatus.

Hitachi, the Japanese conglomerate, inflicted a major blow to the government when it abandoned plans to build a nuclear power plant at Wylfa in 2019 — writing off $2.8bn on the project.

Since then US nuclear company Westinghouse has put together a consortium with construction group Bechtel to revive the plans. The companies want to build either one or two nuclear reactors on the site along with — potentially — a couple of SMRs of the sort being developed by Rolls-Royce.

Johnson is understood to be enthusiastic about Wylfa’s prospects as part of an acceleration of the nuclear programme.

But Treasury figures including Sunak are said to be more cautious given that getting the scheme off the ground would require generous support from the government and taxpayers.

“With Rishi it’s not as if he is saying no to Wylfa, but there is a sense of caution in the Treasury which does seem to be delaying progress,” said one senior government official.

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