Energy security requires heavyweight answers

By Claire Ackerman

1 February 2023

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and 40-year high inflation rates have combined to place unprecedented pressure on UK energy bills and create a cost of living crisis.  Gas supply issues together with economic headwinds have ensured that the net zero narrative for many politicians is now about energy security and national resilience as well as tackling the climate crisis.  

Government has presented an ‘everything’ plan to deliver energy security, with all energy options back on the table. There are commitments to construct onshore and offshore wind turbines, unlock the potential of new solar farms as well as drive a renaissance of new nuclear with new plants and smaller modular reactors.  Underpinning this mix of technologies is a pledge to boost UK energy storage capacity.

As a major supplier of local materials for nuclear power plant construction and renewables such as onshore and offshore wind, the UK concrete sector is committed to helping Government and industry boost delivery of clean energy. 

Here are some key materials considerations:

Concrete is essential for nuclear projects

Delivering nuclear power plants and small modular reactors on the scale of Government ambition will require a secure, medium-to-long term supply of concrete and, by extension, the raw materials – cement and aggregates – that make concrete. 

The unique demands of nuclear power plants in shielding against heat and radiation mean that particular formulas of heavyweight concrete need to be used in their construction. These formulas typically require specific high-density aggregates to ensure the ultra high quality and consistency of concrete required for nuclear concrete.

The aggregate selection process is very specific, requiring tight control of the physical and chemical properties of materials, as well as ensuring sufficient consistent resources to guarantee continuity of supply of concrete, with logistics in place to maintain stocks and availability in site.

We need to plan for minerals to support nuclear construction

Much of the debate about new infrastructure is often focused on the consenting of delivering new sources of generation.  However, we also need to plan more effectively to deliver a sustainable volume of essential materials required for the construction of these assets.

In 2020, the 10-year replenishment rate for crushed rock reserves was 76%, and just 63% for sand and gravel.  This means that demand is comfortably outstripping the tonnage of new reserves that the minerals industry is permitted to extract, and the amount of extractable reserves is gradually dwindling.

While this is not a short-term threat to the supply of aggregates, it is an issue that needs to be addressed in order to avoid it becoming a problem in the medium-to-long term, especially if demand for aggregates increases as a result of a new drive to construct nuclear power plants.

To deliver nuclear power at scale will require the mineral planning and permitting system to be streamlined, more consistent, and better resourced. Future supply cannot be assumed; it must be planned, monitored, managed, and facilitated by a consistent and efficient planning and permitting system.

Offshore and onshore wind farms require concrete

Concrete is successfully being used to build the foundations for both onshore and offshore wind projects.  The UK industry has been working closely with the sector to develop new foundations to meet the exacting demands for offshore projects in deep waters.

Foundations made of concrete provide the level of performance needed in challenging sea conditions, use local materials and can be less carbon intensive than other foundation solutions.

When it comes to planning for energy infrastructure, the headlines are usually focused on the debate surrounding technologies, the cost and location. The materials required may feel secondary but they are vital to project delivery.

Concrete is a durable, low maintenance material and essential for building and maintaining a new generation of energy infrastructure. As a local, responsibly sourced material with 95% of concrete produced in the UK, it can play a vital role in helping the UK to deliver new clean energy infrastructure to support net zero delivery and greater energy security.