The Nuclear Option
The UK is facing an energy crisis, and a climate crisis. People are rightfully concerned about their future, both short term and long term, as energy costs have shot up whilst temperatures rise.
How can we solve both these problems? For too long, politicians have delayed bringing in proper legislation to deal with these crises, and time is running out.
Right now at COP26, politicians from across the world are meeting to discuss these issues. But is there a solution staring us in the face?
Nuclear power is often touted as a clean energy solution to the climate crisis. Nuclear power stations do not emit carbon during production, and are one of only a few consistent and reliable green energy sources available at the moment.
“Energy security lies in diversity, and I think nuclear is a reliable source of electricity,” said Andrew Bridgen, Conservative MP for North West Leicestershire.
“If we want to be zero carbon, we can’t just rely on renewables. We need something for stable baseload and nuclear is a good option for that.”
Professor William J Nuttall from the Open University further outlined what makes nuclear so reliable: “The fuel for nuclear power is fundamentally uranium, and it’s extremely energy dense and it’s very easily stored.
“This means a country like the UK, which has no uranium mines, can store ample supplies for the years ahead.”
For years, proponents of nuclear energy have battled against fears that nuclear power can be dangerous to people. Disasters such as Chernobyl have lived long in the memory, inspiring video games, films and TV shows.
But nuclear energy is remarkably safe, especially when compared to most fossil fuel energy sources. According to Our World in Data, even including deaths caused by Chernobyl and Fukushima, nuclear power is less deadly than coal, oil, natural gas and biomass.
“Fukushima was caused by a tsunami. I’m not expecting any tsunamis in north west Leicestershire – we’re the furthest away from the sea in any direction.” Bridgen joked.
Nuclear power is not perfect. It is an incredibly expensive energy source to set up, even if the costs of running it once built are low.
Craig Bennett, chief executive of the Wildlife Trust, emphasised these concerns: “The construction of Hinkley C nuclear power station is only being achieved through a very expensive public subsidy that will be stuck on bills for years.”
Professor Nuttall agreed that the costs imposed by nuclear as things stand is a major issue for the industry: “The fundamental set of attributes that drive energy policy are threefold: their contribution to meeting the climate challenge, the role that they play in what’s called energy security and affordability.”
“In my opinion, nuclear ticks two of these boxes really well. It ticks the climate challenge box and it ticks the energy security box. But it has just suffered from high costs.”
Nuclear power stations such as those being built at Hinkley Point C are vast and take up a huge amount of space, which can harm the local environment.
Bennett believes public money could be best spent elsewhere: “If we can properly insulate our houses and our buildings, if we can drive to much more energy efficient products and use policy to do that – we could potentially see a reduction in electricity demand over the decades ahead rather than an increase.”
But British company Rolls Royce is trying to address these issues, proposing the ‘small modular reactor’. They say: “It solves the conundrum of how to create affordable energy, and more of it, with a lower carbon footprint”.
Matthew Blake is the chief small nuclear reactor (SMR) engineer at Rolls-Royce. He outlined how the new SMRs may transform how we view nuclear energy.
“We build the power station within factories and then deliver it to site and it gets installed on site. That allows us to control the build cycle that allows us to compress the build time and allows us to bring it to market earlier,” he said.
“That reliability, that metronomic delivery then allows us to offer a price point that is commercially investable.”
In addition to addressing the cost issues, the SMRs use up far less space and therefore have a diminished impact on the environment compared to our current power stations.
“We’re actually one of the only industries that’s required from day one of the design to actually consider what we’re going to do at the point of decommissioning.” Blake explained.
“As part of the design that we’re generating, we have a full environmental assessment from day one through to returning the site to greenfield.”
There is no easy solution to the climate crisis, but the time has passed for delaying. Nuclear is not without its flaws, but proponents say it may well be our last hope.