A stand-off between Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak over the expansion of nuclear energy is behind the latest delay to the Government’s long-anticipated energy security strategy.
The Prime Minister is pushing for between six and seven new large nuclear power stations of a similar size to Hinkley Point C to be built by 2050, as he seeks to dramatically reduce the country’s reliance on oil and gas.
But the proposals are being strongly resisted by the Treasury, with the Chancellor concerned that the vast investment in nuclear would not provide the taxpayer with value for money.
It has meant that the energy package has been kicked further down the road, despite Mr Johnson having previously pledged to publish the proposals at the start of the month.
The plans are also expected to include ways to produce more energy from renewables, and increase North Sea oil and gas production.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman denied that they were being delayed because of a disagreement, instead stating that it was “important we get these things right”.
“It is a significant piece of work that takes time to develop and it is not unusual for strategies and approaches like this to take the right amount of time before being published,” the spokesman said.
But according to sources close to the discussions, the delay is down to a dispute between Mr Johnson and Mr Sunak over investment in new nuclear projects.
The Prime Minister is understood to have told a round table of executives from the nuclear power industry that he wants to see 25 per cent of the country’s electricity supply to come from new nuclear plants as part of his “big bet” on the industry.
But the scale of the ambition is not being shared by the Chancellor, particularly as the construction cost of Hinkley Point C is expected to be around £22-23bn by the time it comes on grid in 2026.
With economies of scale being found, should the Government decide to invest in seven new large-scale reactors the construction cost would be more than £100bn over the next 20 years, although this would largely come from the private sector.
Mr Sunak attempted to distance himself from claims that he was the reason behind the delays to the strategy, telling MPs on the Treasury Select Committee on Monday: “I’m certainly not blocking anything and the Prime Minister is continuing to work through the details of that.
“Given how important it is, I think it’s important that we get it right and it will impact lots of different things and it is being worked on at pace between all of the relevant ministers.”
The energy security strategy is now not expected to be published until 4 April at the earliest, meaning it will have been nearly a month since the Prime Minister promised it “within days” on 9 March.
Officials hope they will be able to set out the package while the House of Lords is still sitting next week.
A failure to do so would mean the Government’s plan may not be released until mid-May, due to a parliamentary traffic jam caused by Easter recess, restrictions on governmental announcements during the local elections, and the Queen’s Speech.
Labour has dismissed the Prime Minister’s 25 per cent figure for new nuclear power generation as an “invention” that is not backed by the science, although the party supports more nuclear power.
Even the nuclear industry seems sceptical about hitting a quarter of all the UK’s electricity supply, preferring instead to discuss the target of 15GW of power from nuclear sources by 2035 – a amount called for by a cross-party panel of MPs.
Even that would come at a cost of around £80bn. However, it is estimated that it would save about 3.6bn tonnes of carbon that would otherwise be produced by burning gas.
By 2030, all but one of the country’s existing nuclear power stations – Sizewell B – will have come offline, with proponents of nuclera power saying this emphasises the need for a greater investment in the industry.
The Nuclear Industry Association said the UK needed to “urgently” invest in a fleet of “large and small nuclear stations” alongside renewables to deliver the “clean sovereign power we need”.
Ministers who support the push for more nuclear energy claim nuclear power generation would become cheaper the more stations are built, as supply chains are developed. Small modular reactors are also increasingly being viewed as a cheaper alternative.
Rolls-Royce are developing technology for the smaller reactors, which could supplement the nuclear energy production.