Ivor Catto is an executive board director of Atkins
Unfortunately, we are getting close to decommissioning many more of our current nuclear power stations. This will leave us with a problem – where to secure our energy?
But new energy build has a problem - the New Electricity Trading Arrangements, introduced in March 2001, brought a slump in energy prices. The investment sector took a burn on the energy market, when trading arrangements changed overnight.
This has bred reticence of investment. Without investment, clients cannot recognise the potential of nuclear in the long-term. Markets need to get returns, and not just today. Bringing nuclear into the carbon trading market would give it an essential financial advantage.
Nuclear needs to be seen in this context. It has always been carved-out as a special case, but it should be categorised as a carbon-free energy. Of course, it is not entirely carbon-free, as there is some carbon use in the construction, but nuclear is a very low carbon emitter.
Bringing nuclear into the carbon trading market will give it an advantage, and make it more attractive for investors. Nuclear power is an environmental technology and we have seen in the Energy White Paper an understanding of that.
There is also a capacity issue – there is not enough power on the bars. We also need security of supply – we currently depend on gas, buying from Norway and Russia.
Coal assets are really under strain. Life extension of existing coal-fired stations is becoming tighter and tighter. Component parts, especially at high temperatures are difficult to monitor.
There are a number of environmental technologies – including nuclear - that can produce electricity. Of course, nuclear is a technology that has to be used in a controlled environment. The UK has exhibited the ability to do this, stretching back to the 1950s, France as well.
We tend to be caught up in new nuclear builds in places like Sellafield or Dounrey, but just across the channel is the French nuclear programme. There is a misunderstanding – whatever approach we make in the UK, we have nuclear power on our doorstep, just across the channel.
I do think that nuclear is important, but it is only one part of the mix. I do agree it is right to incentivise the use of renewables, but is it possible to go beyond 20% from renewable energy, giving the limitations of supply – unreliable winds for example?
Energy efficiency will play a big part and we have to do a lot more. For example, the zero carbon home, is a real step forward. The way we use energy is very important, and there are important roles for engineers. It is not all just about power, but also how we use that power. There are also means to mitigate climate change through technologies like sequestration.
Unfortunately, there is definitely a skills gap. The number of graduates is reducing, and the age of nuclear engineers is increasing. The average age now is about 42. At Atkins are trying to invest in training, encouraging the best and brightest, which is why we have set-up a training academy, matching young to the old, to cascade knowledge.
Atkins is the UK’s largest employer of engineers. We have to nurture British talent, partly because the government has a restriction on exactly who can work in nuclear.
Although new designs for nuclear power stations will be pre-approved, we still need designers. We still have to make conventional designs within pre-approved designs.
We need to make a mental switch for nuclear, switching neutrality, so nuclear is considered not as a polluter, but as a green technology.