Comment: Nuclear expertise puts Sheffield at heart of clean-energy revolution

As we start to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, we still need to deal with the even-more challenging reality of the climate crisis, says Andrew Storer, chief executive officer of The University of Sheffield Nuclear AMRC.

Nuclear AMRC

Originally published in Sheffield Telegraph

As a nation, we are committed to reducing our net emissions of greenhouse gases to zero by 2050.

Last year was the first when the UK produced more electricity from low-carbon renewables and nuclear than fossil fuels and we recently managed two months without burning any coal.

That’s worth celebrating, but there’s still a long way to go to decarbonise our power generation.

We also need new kinds of electric vehicle to cut transport emissions and new ways to heat businesses and homes – that’s likely to double demand by 2050, which means we’ll need about four times as much low-carbon generation as now.

Here in the Sheffield City Region, we’re being even more ambitious. Mayor Dan Jarvis has set a target of reaching net zero by 2040.

His team is working with The University of Sheffield, including researchers at its Energy Institute, to develop ways of driving clean growth, improving energy efficiency, and helping homes and businesses to decarbonise.

There’s only so much that can be done locally. According to the SCR energy strategy, the region generates less than 20 per cent of the electricity it consumes.

Reaching net zero will take a national effort and investment on a massive scale.

As we emerge from the shadow of Covid-19, we can all appreciate the scale and intensity of the effort needed to tackle an international crisis. We can also see the opportunity to drive a national economic renewal by investing in new low-carbon technologies produced by British manufacturers.

We might not produce much power in the Sheffield region today, but we are developing the low-carbon power sources of tomorrow.

Wind and other intermittent renewables can make an enormous contribution but, because they need energy storage or back-up generation, they become much more expensive as they play a larger role in the energy mix.

That’s why we need nuclear to reach net zero.

Nuclear currently makes up two-fifths of our low-carbon generation and keeping that share makes engineering and economic sense.

We believe the best way of achieving that is with a mix of large reactors, of a similar size to the two being built at Hinkley Point, Somerset, and a new generation of small modular reactors.

At the nuclear advanced manufacturing research centre, we are working with industry on new designs of power plant, using advanced manufacturing technologies to cut the cost of energy.

We are part of the UK SMR consortium, working alongside firms such as Rolls-Royce, to develop a more flexible and affordable power plant based around proven reactor technology.

A UK SMR power plant would be about the size of a football stadium and produce enough electricity to meet the current needs of a city the size of Sheffield, at a competitive cost.

If these are to play their part in reaching net zero, we need to build the first commercial unit on an existing nuclear site by about 2030 and then produce up to 10 units a year for the UK and for export.

That could create up to 40,000 jobs and £52 billion of value for the UK economy, as well as £250bn of exports.

It’s ambitious, but achievable. Realising it will establish a new industrial cluster in the north of England, producing modules for nuclear-licensed sites around the UK and export around the world – the Sheffield region can be at the heart of that manufacturing renaissance.

We are also helping develop the ultimate source of unlimited low-carbon power– nuclear fusion, the same process that powers the sun.

UKAEA, the world leader in fusion research and development, last year chose to come to our region because of our expertise at the Nuclear AMRC, and is now building its new materials testing facility on Rotherham’s Advanced Manufacturing Park. It will test materials and components in conditions which reproduce the incredible temperatures and magnetic fields experienced inside a fusion reactor.

Our team is already working with UKAEA to develop the manufacturing technologies which will reduce the cost and risk of the first fusion power plants, and help turn UKAEA’s research into engineered reality by the early 2040s.

Bringing this energy revolution to the SCR shows the strength and innovation of our region’s advanced manufacturing and clean technology cluster. The energy sector has been relatively unscathed by the Covid crisis and, with targeted investment, can hold the key to the economic recovery.

Sheffield cannot deliver the UK’s net zero mission alone, but work is under way at the nuclear AMRC and university to put us at the heart of this energy revolution.