The state of the UK's power grid

A snapshot of how much power is used in the UK, and where it comes from.
02 February 2021

Interview with 

Matt Rooney, Institution of Mechanical Engineers




To really get a grip on where the conflict around nuclear power lies, it’s important to understand the state of nuclear power today, and how people feel about it. Matt Rooney is Head of Policy at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, and he joined Adam Murphy to give a snapshot of the UK's energy...

Matt - So this is obviously changing quite rapidly due to de-carbonisation, but broadly about 40% of the last couple of years has come from renewable sources. So that's wind solar, hydro, and biomass primarily. About 40% comes from fossil fuels, primarily gas, but also coal and oil. And then just less than 20% has been from nuclear fission.

Adam - So that's a snapshot of things right now, but what are the trends - what's growing, what's falling?

Matt - So the two big trends over the last few years that will continue - the first is a massive decline in coal. And this has obviously been good news for decarbonisation because it's the most carbon intensive fuel we use. And the second is an expansion of all renewables, really, but particularly offshore wind. And the reason for the coal decline has been government policy - so the government has committed to phasing out coal by 2025, but also these plants are older, and also they have to pay a carbon tax, and as it's the most carbon intensive fuel it pays the highest carbon tax. Offshore wind is more a triumph of engineering because the industry has managed to bring down costs over the last few years. Astoundingly, the cost of offshore wind has come down by more than half. So it's become one of the go-to low carbon technologies.

Adam - What about how people feel about nuclear power? What are the perceptions right now?

Matt - So last year, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers commissioned ICM to conduct a poll into nuclear power in the UK and how the public feels about it. The headline figures were 40% support nuclear power for electricity production in the UK, and 27% oppose. Delving a little bit deeper into the results, the biggest factor was age. So if you're a young person, you're more likely to be skeptical of nuclear power. And the older you get, the more likely you are to be pro-nuclear. One of the other questions we asked people was, do you think nuclear power is low carbon? And the results for this were interesting because they tracked broadly with the age groups of whether they're pro or anti. So only 26% of young people think that nuclear power is low carbon, so that's 18 to 24 year olds. Whereas for 65 to 74 year olds, 61% of people think that nuclear power is low carbon.

Adam - And what kind of things have got us to the point where these beliefs are the way they are?

Matt - It's difficult to say, but young people have obviously been very enthusiastic about tackling climate change. So organisations like Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion are very anti-nuclear power. So that may have influenced the views of young people.

Adam - Sometimes I wonder if things like Homer Simpson, you know, the nuclear safety technician played a role. Do you think that that had an impact?

Matt - I'm only being slightly facetious when I think the Simpsons have a large role to play in negative views about nuclear power, and also TV shows like HBO's Chernobyl. Big accidents get into the public's mind - that can influence things, and we did see that after the Fukushima accident where in Japan, in particular, understandably, attitudes towards nuclear power declined massively, but also in countries like Germany as well.

Adam - And what about other places that have different views - France is the one that springs to mind, they're much more pro-nuclear. What's going on differently there?

Matt - Yeah, so when you ask people who are pro-nuclear what they associate nuclear power with it's things like a national endeavor or energy independence and energy security. France built up most of their nuclear power industry in the seventies and eighties, it was an astounding feat really. They completely decarbonised their electricity system in 20 years using almost completely nuclear power. And it was a national program and it was not built on decarbonisation, it was done for energy security reasons off the back of the oil shocks of the 1970s.


I'm a member of Extinction Rebellion and I'm not anti nuclear power. It's got it's issues, but on the whole seems preferable to burning the rest of the fossil fuel reserves. I might be in the minority in XR, but the overall message of the movement is that the world urgently needs to make informed decisions about what to do about mitigating, surviving, and eventually reversing rapid human-caused climate change. There's lots of options, and personally I think nuclear is more likely to be part of the solution than the problem. Even if other members disagree with me, that's fine. We're a bunch of people trying to pull in the same general direction, not a religion.

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