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Why nuclear needs to be part of a just transition to a low-carbon economy

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Unions support nuclear as part of a balanced energy mix that will deliver a just transition to a greener, fairer economy.

Today, I will join energy unions on a visit to the proposed Sizewell C nuclear power station in Suffolk. We make this trip at a critical time for UK energy policy.

As we phase out unabated coal, decommission most of our existing nuclear power plants, and look to close our oldest gas-fired power stations, we can no longer delay major decisions about energy generation.

Renewable power is vital, not least as we target the move to a net zero carbon economy by 2050, as advised by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) – advice which has been accepted by the British government.

Unions rejoice in the news that renewables provided around a third of our electricity in 2018, a six-fold increase over a decade. We want to see that figure go higher still.

But renewable technologies like wind and solar are variable by their nature, which is one reason why unions support a balanced energy mix.

And if energy is to be low carbon, nuclear needs to be part of this mix.

Strong case for public investment

There is a strong case for direct public investment in nuclear infrastructure, given how cheaply government can borrow and the fact that power is a national asset.

But unions are under no illusion that Boris Johnson’s government has the political will to take radical action on climate change and low carbon energy.

This is why we believe that a ‘regulated asset base’ (RAB) model to take nuclear power forward could be part of the answer.

The RAB model provides regulated returns to investors. This means it has the potential to reduce the cost of raising private finance for new nuclear projects, which would cut consumer bills and maximise value for money for consumers and taxpayers.

Engagement with energy workers

If a RAB model is adopted, we need to ensure meaningful engagement with the energy workforce during the regulatory process.

This financing approach transfers much of the project risk away from the developers, which could mean pressure on the regulator to ensure that costs do not become inflated.

Nobody wants excessively high costs, neither do we want profits to come at the expense of lower staffing levels, poorer terms and conditions or safety.

So unions would support a RAB model, but we need safeguards included to protect working people and the wider community.

Time to invest in research

Alongside this investment in infrastructure, we need to give more support to UK energy research more generally.

Since 2010, public investment in renewables research and development has fallen by more than 70 per cent. Such is the damage caused by austerity.

Yet if we are to achieve our net zero target by 2050, new technological developments will be critical.

Given the right support, developments in energy storage, smart grids and carbon capture technology could be massive – with massive rewards to match.

The global market for carbon capture alone is predicted to be worth £100bn a year by 2050.

Workers need a just transition

Finally, a move away towards renewable and nuclear energy requires a just transition for the energy workforce.

Unions have long argued that we cannot undertake an industrial disruption on this scale without bringing the workforce with us and policy makers are beginning to understand. We were delighted to see such a strong commitment to just transition in the CCC’s net zero report.

The TUC also published our own just transition statement in July, in which we called for a clear and funded path to a low carbon economy, a place for workers at the heart of delivering on plans for a just transition, access to skills funding for all workers, and an undertaking that new, ‘green’ jobs are good jobs.

No trade-off between a low carbon economy and great jobs

The future energy agenda is massively important. It goes to the heart of the kind of country that we want to be.

Do we want to lead the way to a zero-carbon world or lag behind? Are we prepared to support workers as game-changing technologies come on stream, or would we accept a re-run of the 1980s, when our coal industry was decimated and coal communities were consigned to years of social and economic decline?

Unions are clear: there is no trade off between low carbon technologies and great jobs in great industries.

We can have both. That will be our message at Sizewell C today.