The Politicisation of Nuclear Energy

Nuclear power is a major component of the UK’s plans to reach its net-zero targets whilst continuing to support the energy demands in the country.

The current status of nuclear energy in the UK

In 2021, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) released a report that states that nuclear power contributed to 16.1% of the UK’s electricity the previous year. It is no doubt that nuclear sources of power serve as an integral part of the future of the UK’s energy system, though not without its safety concerns, as it continues in its commitment to achieving net zero by 2050.

The 2022 British energy security strategy policy paper, published by BEIS, states that “Nuclear is the only form of reliable, low carbon electricity generation which has been proven at scale and returns more than 100 times as much power as a solar site of the same size”. It is clear, therefore, that nuclear provides an effective means of producing low-carbon energy, and it is no surprise that it has formed a major part of recent governments’ energy and industry development plans. In this same report, it was announced that nuclear-generating capacity would increase from 7 gigawatts (GW) to 24 GW. A necessary increase if the UK has any chance of meeting the ambitious net-zero demands.

Boris Johnson’s government, and preceding Conservative governments, demonstrated a commitment to nuclear power. However, this article considers how the current government under Rishi Sunak and the shadow government under Keir Starmer are treating this topic and how it has become a politicised area of discussion over recent weeks.

The cross-party debate

Labour leader Keir Starmer has demonstrated his desire for nuclear power to play a ‘critical part’ in his own net-zero plans, were he to be elected into office. By investing in nuclear, he hopes to bolster energy security, save the consumer money in an ever-costly environment, and provide further jobs. Part of Labour’s manifesto is a pledge to block all new domestic oil and gas developments. In doing so, the Labour Party hope to invest more in renewables and nuclear power. This is, clearly, a bold element to Labour’s forward-thinking environmental policies as it looks to regain power in the next election.

Keir Starmer, in the usual manner in which our two-party system manifests itself, took the opportunity when setting out his plans to invest in nuclear energy and a desire to ban new domestic oil and gas production to criticise the attempts of the Conservative party over the last 13 years. He described the Conservative party as ‘shambolic’ in their failure to open any new nuclear plants in the time they have been in power since the last Labour government of 2010. He attributed this failure to approve new plans to have cost 7,000 jobs. Strategically, he made a visit to Hinkley Point C in early June, one of eight power plants announced in 2010 to be built, but the only one currently in construction. Construction started in 2017 and is expected to finish in 2027. Starmer cited this plant as one of many that would have been opened by now, were Labour in charge.

Earlier in the Spring, Rishi Sunak revealed his own plans involving a commitment to invest in nuclear power. In March, as part of his energy security strategy, Sunak stated he would focus on carbon capture and storage as well as investment into mini-nuclear reactors. Sunak and his government still consistently demonstrate their commitment to the net-zero goal, but not without scrutiny from the political opposition. Labour’s shadow secretary for net-zero Ed Miliband criticised Sunak’s energy security strategy, labelling it ‘climate vandalism’.

The perpetual debate on climate change, as recently brought to the forefront via conflict over nuclear energy development in the UK, continues to divide and exasperate our political system. Both parties, in preparation for the upcoming elections, consider climate policies to be at the top of their agendas, as the crisis gains momentum. Nuclear energy, an efficient yet often controversial form of green energy, is seen as an integral part of net-zero efforts. Yet Keir Starmer has chosen his time to criticise years of Conservative failings in developing nuclear power plants, as he continues to attempt to sway voters and grow support before the next election.

Article by Jeremy Page

Jeremy is currently undertaking the PGDL at BPP University. He provides paralegal and research assistance to the legal team at Prospect Law and has a special interest in commercial and international law.

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