Do we need to be nuclear to be green?
Every quarter Oaklin’s strategy practice hosts a debate on trends and technologies that are disrupting businesses and creating market opportunities. This quarter we kicked off a series of debates looking at sustainability with a discussion focussed on whether the UK needs to invest in new nuclear power plants to achieve its net zero emission targets.
"Changes to national energy supplies will have profound implications at all levels, from geopolitics and global markets, to the cost of a cup of tea. Every organisation will be affected in some way, so now is the time to start thinking about energy change and the impact on your business strategy."
This topical and controversial subject seemed the ideal place to start our strategic look at sustainability; it turned out to be a fascinating debate.
There were surprises at the outset, with both sides strongly positioning renewables in their arguments. There can be no doubt that renewables are at the core of the UK’s future energy supply, particularly wind, with agreement that we need to remove fossil fuels from our energy supply if we are to achieve our net zero targets. Then it got really interesting.
Those against the investment in nuclear power argued that it is too expensive and too dangerous to be credibly considered an investment. They argued that further nuclear development would encumber the nation with decommissioning and waste challenges too costly to contemplate. Instead, they proposed radical new ideas in energy storage, which are already showing promise of being able to smooth the unpredictable supply peaks and troughs inherent in today’s renewable sources. We were introduced to Vanadium redox-flow batteries, super cooled liquid air and molten salt batteries, solutions that work today and that will work at scale in time to meet the target. Even when operating at scale these new technologies will be a fraction of the cost and complexity of nuclear power, ripping up any justification for the cost, risk and waste that cannot be avoided with nuclear energy.
Those in favour of investment in nuclear made a case for not betting the future of civilisation on storage ideas that don’t yet exist outside the laboratory. They argued that the need to reduce carbon emissions is too pressing to wait for future wonders, change is needed today. It will be smaller, cleaner nuclear solutions that will help us smooth the peaks in renewable supply. We were introduced to the idea of small modular reactor designs, which are a world away from the huge and costly plants of the 1960s. They accepted that nuclear power is dangerous, if not well managed, and that the waste is costly to store and dispose of, but it is only nuclear that we can turn to when the wind doesn’t blow, for the next few decades at least. Investment in nuclear plants and the commitment to operate and dispose of them faultlessly is effectively the price we have to pay to keep the lights on, if we are to transition away from fossil fuels.
Our strategy sessions end with a vote from everyone in Oaklin who joined to watch and ask questions. Against expectations, the vote went 68% in favour of investment in nuclear and 32% against it. Fuelling our interest in further sustainability topics, the rationale from those who stayed to chat afterwards was that tackling climate change was too urgent and important to risk on untested technologies. They felt that action is needed now. It also left us wondering what the world would look like if freed from its dependence on fossil fuels and those that supply them. Tune in next time...
Dom is a Partner in Oaklin Consulting, with over 24 years’ consulting and Board advisory experience across the public and private sectors. A graduate of Durham University, Dom has an honours degree in archaeology and is an alumnus of London Business School. Previous to a career in consulting, Dom spend 6 years in the military. Dom has built extensive experienced in business strategy, outsourcing, workforce restructuring, communications, digital technology and designing and delivering complex change. He has particular sector experience in aerospace, retail financial services, trade wholesale, and in six government departments and agencies.