Imperial College London

"Nuclear energy is not as risky as climate change"

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Five grey buildings of a nuclear power station stand at the end of a yellow field of flowers, with a path leading towards them. Four of the buildings have vapour coming from the top.

Nuclear power will be essential for meeting the UK's greenhouse gas targets, concluded a new report by Imperial energy experts.

The energy sector is one of the biggest culprits for greenhouse gas emissions in the UK due to its historical reliance on burning fossil fuels. Many experts believe that combining new, lower-cost renewable technologies with nuclear power could be the key to reducing these emissions and creating a cleaner, safer world free from climate change. However, members of the public are still divided on whether nuclear energy is the right way forward, and investment in nuclear can be expensive and risky.

The Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment and the Centre for Nuclear Engineering at Imperial College London recently hosted a panel discussion to debate how nuclear power could help to curb emissions and the role for this technology in the future. The event marked the launch of the Institute's briefing paper: The role of nuclear electricity in a low-carbon world

Mr Neil Hirst, Senior Policy Fellow for the Grantham Institute and author of the briefing paper said, "we have legally binding obligations to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. There are sectors, such as transport and aviation, where this will be difficult, so we will need to reduce emissions from electricity generation to near zero to make up for this."

Building new reactors in the UK

Recently, the government has ramped up its commitments to nuclear by supporting EDF Energy's Hinkley Point C and are considering plans to support a new nuclear power station at Horizon Nuclear’s Wylfa Newydd. Dr Malwina Gradecka, Senior Engineer for Low-carbon Energy Technologies at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, commented, "in the UK we have limited hydro power, solar is becoming more efficient but we have to account for periods without sunlight, which just leaves wind and nuclear, the government sees both playing a big role in helping us achieve a low-carbon energy mix."

"We have legally binding obligations to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. There are sectors, such as transport and aviation, where this will be difficult, so we will need to reduce emissions from electricity generation to near zero to make up for this."Neil Hirst Senior Policy Fellow for the Grantham Institute

Paul Spence, Director of Strategy and Corporate Affairs, EDF Energy, added, “renewables currently contribute about 30% of our electricity supply, we should aim to increase this but storage will be a limiting factor. To store a weeks' worth of generation from our Dorenell wind farm we would need around 8,000 container-sized batteries; the cost and volume is huge. Until we can solve this issue, nuclear has a key role in the mix."

Mr Tom Burke, Chairman of E3G argued, "while we do need a low-carbon energy supply, we also have to think about the deadlines for our emissions targets, if we wait for these new nuclear plants to be built then we will fail to meet them. Nuclear is also too expensive, public capital is limited so increasing public investment in nuclear is simply not an option."

He continued, "furthermore, 'new' nuclear reactors are actually based on old, twentieth century technology, and are an inherently inflexible energy source. Our modern energy system needs flexibility, nuclear power cannot keep up."

However, Dr Ben Britton, Deputy Director of the Centre for Nuclear Engineering argued, "modern reactors have more flexibility than ever, especially with new engineering solutions that provide a fast switch-off option to dial back power generation."

Despite its promise in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, public opinion has remained mixed. Dr Gradecka highlighted, "government polls show that 38% of the UK population actively support nuclear and only 22% oppose," however, Mr Burke added, "this isn't the whole story, as overwhelmingly 70% of the public say they want more investment in renewables."

Financing nuclear power

Cost is probably the most controversial aspect of nuclear power in the UK today, according to the Grantham Institute briefing paper, and a hot topic for the audience.

Alyssa Gilbert, Director of Policy and Translation at the Grantham Institute, who chaired the panel event said: "Because costs of all power generation are so uncertain, from nuclear to renewables, storage and fossil fuel generation with carbon capture and storage, it is difficult to make decisions now that will guarantee that we deliver low-carbon power at the lowest cost."

Nuclear energy has maintained its high cost globally because the nuclear companies would constantly update the designs for new reactors. Now, experts including Dr Britton are optimistic that the construction costs will drop if manufacturers start to build 'modular' power stations which are made from multiple manufactured units.

Dr Spence of EDF predicted that the cost of the company's second reactor in the UK would be comparable with the new low prices for energy set by wind and solar energy generators. Their second reactor at Sizewell C in Suffolk is estimated to come in at less than 80% of the cost of Hinkley Point C in Somerset, with further savings made by borrowing expertise from reactors already operating in China.

"One reasonable concern is the high cost to the public purse of financing new nuclear reactors," cautioned Ms Gilbert. "Instead, we might wish to see market forces leading to plausible alternatives such like substituting public funds with private infrastructure bonds, or by allowing power generation companies to compete against each other on cost and greenhouse gas-emissions for the contracts to supply power to the UK."

Safety concerns?

Two of the biggest issues that have historically divided public opinion are nuclear waste and reactor safety. Mr Spence explained, "the safety risks are often over estimated, and I think the public knows this. EDF Energy's reactors are carefully maintained to ensure their safety and integrity, and members of the public can see this for themselves at our visitor centres to put any remaining fears to rest."

Dr Britton added, "waste is still an issue, it lasts thousands of years and there are risks of it leaking from containers into the environment. We have solutions already such as “atomic bottles” which can store the waste for over 50 years, and we have some of the brightest minds working to engineer the longer term best solution."

He continued, "however, it is all relative, nuclear energy is not as risky as climate change. We need to create a world where future generations don't have to deal with the worst climate impacts."

Nuclear energy is not as risky as climate change. We need to create a world where future generations don't have to deal with the worst climate impacts Dr Ben Britton Deputy Director of the Centre for Nuclear Engineering

Mr Hirst concluded, "ultimately, the case for nuclear power comes down to timing and the options available for the UK’s low carbon strategy. A recent study by the College concluded that although renewables are set to make a major contribution to our low-carbon electricity, they may need to be complemented with nuclear. For the time being it makes sense to continue to develop our nuclear industry, however the industry’s future will depend on shortening construction times and improving battery and energy storage technology."

Read about nuclear's future in the Grantham Briefing Paper: The role of nuclear electricity in a low-carbon world

Read Neil Hirst's book: The Energy Conundrum – Climate change, global prosperity and the tough decisions we have to make

Listen to the full panel discussion on YouTube

Reporter

Ms Abbie Stone

Ms Abbie Stone
The Grantham Institute for Climate Change

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Contact details

Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 8456
Email: a.stone@imperial.ac.uk

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Energy, Pollution, Strategy-share-the-wonder, Environment, Climate-change, Translation, Nuclear-energy
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