Saturday, July 20, 2024
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Can Mogg keep the lights on?


JACOB Rees-Mogg, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, announced on Monday that a STEP nuclear fusion reactor capable of injecting power into the grid is to be built. It will be on the site of the Burton West A coal-fired power station in Nottinghamshire, which is due to be closed next April. The STEP reactor is planned to be built and operating by 2040. It’s the first one to be built at scale and therefore carries a fair bit of technical risk as regards timelines and output.

What JRM didn’t mention was that Burton West A was due to be demolished in June this year as it had reached the end of its life. The government persuaded EDF to keep it open – previously, of course, the government had been keen on scrapping coal in pursuit of its Net Zero ambition. EDF now hold the power station as an emergency resource. This has not been easy for them: many of their staff had left as part of the rundown and sourcing coal was not straightforward. Keeping the plant running is not going to be easy, EDF is (realistically) offering 80 per cent of the capacity of one of the two units as it anticipates challenges. These arise because once a plant is given a closure date it impacts on all maintenance. While ministers can change their mind in an instant, bringing a complex machine back to life requires people, parts, money and time.

Any sensible government would have an energy policy that keeps the lights on (currently a problem), reduces emissions (happening in the UK, but not in the world so it makes no difference) and doesn’t bankrupt the country (which Net Zero looks like doing, unless the markets want another £2trillion of UK government and commercial debt, which it seems they don’t).

JRM’s announcement is a microcosm of the lunacy of the May and Johnson era, where functioning fossil-fuel power stations were scrapped to be replaced by intermittent renewables or, in the case of STEP, something that might come online in 18 years. I hope that Liz Truss has given him a mandate to ensure that our strategy is to have affordable, reliable energy sourced primarily in the UK.

Fusion may well do that in future. The UK is blessed with several fusion projects, including STEP,  membership of ITER, due to fire up in 2026, and First Light Fusion, which hopes to have a 150MW plant operating in the 2030s. For them to be relevant the UK economy must survive the next couple of decades. To do that it needs affordable, reliable and abundant energy. Its present policies are delivering the opposite.

JRM needs to get his civil servants to develop a plan which can fuel the UK whatever the weather and can survive invasions and exploding pipelines east of the Elbe. If the lights go out the government is finished. He needs to get busy now.

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Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell
Patrick Benham-Crosswell is a former Army officer who has spent the last 30 years in commerce. He is the author of Net Zero: The Challenges, Costs and Consequences of the UK's Zero Emission Ambition. He has a substack here. He is the Reform Parliamentary Candidate for Swansea West.

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