New nuclear: the linchpin of the UK’s future energy supply? 

nuclear power

As part of the UK’s new ‘Energy Security Strategy’, a significant acceleration of nuclear power capabilities was announced with ambitions of up to 24 gigawatts of capacity being made available to the energy network via nuclear – 25 per cent of projected electricity demand. According to the government, this could mean delivering up to eight reactors, equivalent to one reactor a year instead of one a decade, accelerating nuclear in Britain. 

The UK, however, has a complex relationship with the idea of nuclear power. While some argue it is necessary to facilitate a low-carbon energy grid – picking up the slack for intermittent renewables – others see nuclear power as unnecessarily expensive compared to the falling cost of wind and solar, hazardous, and slow to build. Greenpeace, for example, say that the new Hinkley Point C reactor could eventually cost of £25 billion by the time it is finished, leading it to be dubbed “the most expensive object on Earth”. Meanwhile, with a new reactor in Finland at least 11 years behind schedule, owing to problems with the reactor design, and Hinkley Point C itself already delayed until 2025, it is no wonder that there is scepticism about the viability of nuclear power to drive energy decarbonisation in time to hit net-zero goals. 

In France, however, the energy supply has been supplemented by nuclear energy for decades. Joseph Tabita, energy and commodities lead at digital transformation consultancy, Publicis Sapient, says France has enjoyed a number of benefits from its reliance on nuclear. Chiefly, continuous capacity for the production of energy on a scale that cannot be matched by current renewable technology. For example, the smallest nuclear power plant, Tabita assets, provides roughly 300 megawatts (MW) of energy, as opposed to the biggest wind turbine only producing roughly 15MW. An average nuclear plant is roughly 1000MW in size. 

His colleague, Iyad Ghanem, head of energy and commodities, France, says that nuclear energy can also help support other energy industries by offering stability and quality of life assurances. During period of troughs for energy demand, excess production of nuclear energy is used in a number of different applications: pumping water in hydroelectric dams so the plant can produce electricity for longer periods of time; producing hydrogen through electrolysis; and storing energy in battery banks that can be used to reinject energy on the grid when needed. 

Dealing with nuclear waste 

One of the biggest criticisms that nuclear advocates face is the discussion around nuclear waste. While it is often referred to as ‘clean energy’ because it does not produce carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases, nuclear waste is produced at every stage of production, including uranium mining and reprocessing of spent reactor fuel. Some of this waste will remain dangerously radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. 

Additionally, high-level nuclear waste is limited in the ways it may be exported from the site where it was originally produced, so new ‘markets’ for dealing with the waste will also need to be developed. In comparing current waste disposal methods, Dr. Henry Critchlow, CEO of NuclearSAFE Technologies, says that the French ‘market’ involves an unnecessarily expensive reprocessing operation. 

“No other country has tried to emulate it for obvious reasons – it is possible to get new, naturally derived nuclear fuel material at prevailing prices way below the current reprocessing level, and there is a major potential for nuclear proliferation by bad actors during the complex reprocessing operations. 

“It is my belief that the UK should create its own ‘market’ by implementing new deep geological disposal systems for nuclear waste disposal, and not slavishly follow the lead of current nuclear leaders such as the US, Canada, and Finland, who are building extremely expensive waste repositories in environmentally sensitive near-surface mines and tunnels. 

“Innovative deep repositories – patented in the US since 1997 – are situated in very deep geological zones, and are now being looked at for widespread utilisation for high-level waste disposal.” 

Small modular reactors 

Despite a recent study from Oxford University researchers showing that the costs of nuclear have consistently increased over the last five decades, making it highly unlikely to be cost competitive with plunging renewable and storage costs, Critchlow is bullish about its potential. 

“Small modular reactor (SMR) technology is advancing quickly and deployment shall be occurring on several fronts worldwide. The UK government should spend billions on SMRs for two simple reasons – baseload and dependability. Nuclear power can run at more than 100 per cent load, as has been proven in Canada recently, and continuously delivers under all weather conditions. Explaining to a family without heat or power in the middle of a weather event may be a difficult job to perform – see the recent deadly Texas problems during Winter storm Uri in 2021.” 

The Energy Security Strategy asserts that, subject to technology readiness from industry, SMRs will form a key part of the nuclear project pipeline. SMRs are generally defined as advanced nuclear reactors with a capacity of less than 300 megawatts – about one-third the size of a traditional plant. Experts hope that the lower cost, smaller size and reduced project risks of SMRs may improve social acceptance and attract private investment. 

The International Energy Agency (IEA) agrees. They say that achieving net zero globally will be harder without nuclear, with SMRs holding the promise of being more affordable, and easier and faster to build than conventional large reactors. As power systems decarbonise, and solar and wind shares increase, SMRs could become a key way to meet rising flexibility needs in power generation, with further usefulness in heat and hydrogen production. 

However, in their ‘Net Zero by 2050 pathway’, the IEA concludes that half of the emissions reductions by mid-century come from technologies that are not yet commercially viable, including SMRs. The successful long-term deployment of this technology hinges on strong support from policy makers starting now, not just to mobilise investment but also to streamline and harmonise regulatory framework. In the UK, where Critchlow argues there is a lack of public understanding of the overall nuclear issue as compared to countries like France, that may be easier said than done. 

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