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Promising to cut bureaucracy, UK PM Johnson targets nuclear energy

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By Reuters

By Elizabeth Piper and Kate Holton

LONDON -Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised nuclear industry leaders on Monday he would help them cut through bureaucracy to finance and build new plants to try to move Britain back towards getting 25% of its energy needs from nuclear, an aide said.

Like much of the West, Britain is trying to find ways to reduce its reliance on Russian fuel by boosting domestic production. He met bosses of offshore oil and gas companies last week to discuss ramping up investment in the North Sea.

Nuclear plants provide around 15% of Britain’s electricity but all but one are scheduled to close by 2030.

Johnson is excited about nuclear, the aide said of the British leader who also wants to find ways to tackle spiralling prices, which threaten to hurt the very people who handed him a large majority at a 2019 election.

Referring to the “intense levels of frustration that we can’t build enough nuclear capacity in this country and we can’t do it fast enough”, Johnson was quoted by the aide as saying he wanted to see Britain getting at least 25% of its energy from nuclear.

According to the aide who was present at the meeting, Johnson told industry heads and financiers that there had been a “chronic absence” of leadership by successive British governments on nuclear energy and that the country was “being left for dead” by other nations, such as France, on the issue.

The target will be tricky to reach, however, due to the huge cost of large-scale nuclear projects which make it difficult to secure investment, with the Hinkley C project expected to cost 22-23 billion pounds.

Lead project developer EDF has said it could make a subsequent plant known as Sizewell C for around 20% below that price, but it has yet to sign off on the final decision.

The aide said Johnson was “very bullish”, and responded to calls from industry heads and financiers to cut bureaucracy and allow them to move at “COVID speed”, a reference to how quickly Britain started vaccinations against COVID-19 in Britain.

He wanted to pursue a “really aggressive timetable” and pointed to upcoming reforms to Solvency II rules, which would make it easier for pension funds and life insurance companies to invest in higher-return but riskier assets such as infrastructure, rather than ultra-safe government bonds.

He told them he had a vision “not quite everyone having their own SMRs in their gardens, but close to it”, the aide said, referring to small modular nuclear reactors (SMR) which can be made in factories.

Johnson will also talk to bosses in the off-shore wind sector in the coming days.