Last month we spoke to Sheffield Forgemasters, a company invigorated by the promised investment in a machine that could produce most of the components for the UK’s next generation of nuclear reactors.
Asked if it was worried about its £80m government loan offer weathering an election, the firm cited Labour and Conservative enthusiasm for new nuclear and declared itself confident the election result wouldn’t scupper the deal. What a difference a few televised debates make. Like most of us, Forgemasters hadn’t entertained the possibility of the Liberal Democrats holding the balance of power in a hung parliament – and the party’s manifesto opposes new nuclear build.
We should stress there is no suggestion the Lib Dems would perform a U-turn on the Sheffield deal – as Nick Clegg is the MP for Sheffield Hallam, we can assume he’d back it. Plus, whatever happens to the UK’s nuclear plans, Forgemasters’ ambitions stretch beyond these shores and the proposed UK reactors are a tiny proportion of global new build.
Nevertheless, the Lib Dems’ potential in a coalition government to halt the nuclear new-build programme is making many people worried – few more so than nuclear-fuel expert Dr Sue Ion. In an exclusive interview with The Engineer – which you can read here – she slams Lib Dem energy policy and warned that it would lead to a disastrous energy shortage. Ion echoes The Engineer’s long-held view that if we want large amounts of electricity, new nuclear, along with clean coal and renewables, must form a significant portion of the UK’s energy mix.
Assuming new nuclear isn’t a casualty of the election, there’s a more imminent problem – the potential energy shortfall resulting from the closure of ageing power plants while we wait 10 years for new nuclear to come online.
Against this backdrop, an inevitable component of our near-term energy mix will be imported energy, whether it is electricity supplied by interconnects linking our grid to mainland Europe, or transcontinental pipelines such as the Nord Stream gas pipeline linking Russia with west Europe. Nord Stream – the biggest subsea pipeline in the world – is a politically and technically challenging project and its engineers are rightly proud of its scale and ambition. You can read all about it here. But back in the UK, the prospect of becoming more reliant on Russia should be an added spur to whoever is charged with planning our future energy mix.