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Roger Saxon: New nuclear development would be a 'just transition' for Caithness workers

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The energy crisis has reinvigorated the debate around nuclear power as a base source in the UK. Roger Saxon, a former Dounreay employee and chairman of Dounreay Stakeholder Group, as well as a Labour councillor in Thurso for 13 years, argues that Small Modular Reactors should be part of Scotland's energy future

A concept design of a Small Modular Reactor, which Roger Saxon says could be considered a new technology.
A concept design of a Small Modular Reactor, which Roger Saxon says could be considered a new technology.

Recent exchanges in the local press have highlighted the controversy over energy sources.

The SNP are not clear on their energy policy as regards nuclear. Their stated position is that they are currently opposed to any new nuclear power in Scotland using existing technology. However, they are about to consult on the matter, if that means anything.

Any movement on their stance would of course fall foul of their coalition with the Scottish Greens and put their parliamentary majority at risk.

Germany is about to discover the cost of turning their back on nuclear power, thanks to their regional greens opposition. Dependency on gas supplies from Russia was both politically and environmentally foolish.

Germany also plans to retire around 40GW of coal-fired generation capacity by 2030 at a cost of €40 billion to compensate the owners of coal mines and power plants as well as support the communities that will be affected. Interestingly, they haven’t considered carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Former chairman of Dounreay Stakeholder Group, Roger Saxon.
Former chairman of Dounreay Stakeholder Group, Roger Saxon.

Energy prices are about to rise dramatically as energy regulator Ofgem raises the price cap on Friday, potentially allowing average bills for dual fuel (gas and electric) to rise as high as £1925, a 50 per cent increase. This will put many more Highland households into fuel poverty. And that’s before any price inflation due to Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Scotland's electricity load is around 1.6GW. Ten years ago Scotland had 2GW nuclear and around 4.5GW hydrocarbon base load, so we used to be net exporters of electricity. We will soon have zero nuclear (Hunterston closed 2021, Torness closes 2028); zero coal (Longannet closed 2016); 1.8GW oil/gas (apart from gas-fired Peterhead at 1.5GW, these are mostly small-scale island back-up diesel generators) and 1.6GW Hydro. So our base-load generation will soon be around 50 per cent hydrocarbon (Peterhead), subject to global price fluctuation and inflation.

Crown Estates Scotland has recently issued licences for new offshore wind farms totalling 24.8GW. We currently have about 3.1GW onshore capacity. The maximum capacity for exporting this electricity from Scotland to England is only 5.5GW, so the excess power needs alternative markets or massive storage facilities.

The Scottish Government has focused on renewable energy, including onshore wind. Picture: Alan Hendry
The Scottish Government has focused on renewable energy, including onshore wind. Picture: Alan Hendry

Most of the pumped storage hydro opportunities have been taken up (and currently amount to only 7.4MW); they are capital intensive and involve flooding our scenic glens.

We frequently confuse rated wind-power capacity with actual demand, assuming we are on the way to self-sufficiency. There is also a tendency to confuse electricity production with energy. In fact, our biggest energy use is heating (42 per cent), followed by transportation (35 per cent) then electricity (23 per cent).

The Scottish Government has concentrated on renewable electricity, but this is mainly intermittent and unpredictable. In fact, the more environmental electricity we depend on, the more base-load generation is required.

This is because on the days there is no wind (or too much wind and the turbines are switched off) we need base load generation to close the gap. We would need to import electricity from England or Norway. More renewables will not solve the fuel poverty crisis and Scotland has been woefully slow at gaining jobs from manufacture.

The SNP has also made noises about carbon capture and storage (CCS). As far as electricity generation goes, this is only relevant to the (ageing) Peterhead, since we surely would not sanction any new hydrocarbon generation, with or without CCS.

It’s impossible to capture all of the carbon and it requires energy to run CCS plants, so the electricity output of Peterhead would go down by at least 10 per cent (and possibly as much as 40 per cent – it’s clearly less efficient to retrofit). Incidentally, natural gas that powers Peterhead will contain some CO2, so that will either be released to the atmosphere before it even gets to the power station, or it will itself need to be captured and stored somehow. CCS simply extends our reliance on hydrocarbon energy further into the future.

Dounreay was a pioneer for breeder reactor technology.
Dounreay was a pioneer for breeder reactor technology.

Here in the north, we hosted Scotland’s first nuclear power at Dounreay and it was a world pioneer of breeder reactor technology. Our area missed out on a bid for a fusion research reactor – although south of Scotland got on the shortlist.

It will be interesting to see what the Green nationalists have to say if it comes to a planning enquiry. The EU has recognised nuclear as a green power source and many European Greens are reconsidering their plans for phase-out.

It could be argued that the Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) – such as those Rolls-Royce are proposing and for which Caithness has been suggested as a base – are a new technology, just as a gas-fired power station with CCS is new technology.

Rolls-Royce believes its SMR design could:

  • Provide 220MW to 440MW of power, depending on the configuration. That’s the equivalent of up to 150 onshore wind turbines when the wind is blowing.
  • Be up and running by 2028 (in time for the closure of Torness) and take just five years from the start of construction to the generation of the first electricity.

The Caithness area has a large number of people who would consider themselves nuclear workers, including the 200 or so Rolls-Royce employees, who could easily operate an SMR.

The jobs this would bring to the area would reverse the Caithness population decline and rebalance the demographic age drift. But even if there's no economic case for a new technology reactor in Caithness, there certainly is a case for three or four in Scotland.

The SMR concept is for factory-built components rather than the expensive, on-site construction of legacy designs. At the very least, we should be at the forefront in arguing that these components could and should be built in Scotland.

We hear a lot about a ‘just transition’ for the thousands of oil workers as we wean ourselves off hydrocarbons. Where is the equivalent for Caithness?

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