Nuclear Power event
Energy dream or nuclear nightmare
As part of Centre’s series of events, we explored whether nuclear energy is needed in a low carbon net-zero energy system or whether its costs and risks are too high. To explore this, we hosted a panel which included Bill Esterson (Labour MP and Shadow Minister for Business and Industry), Penelope Hope (Co-founder of Rebel Energy UK), and Adrian Ramsey (Co-Leader of The Green Party) to be panellists. Centre’s Will Barber-Taylor (Centre’s Deputy Director) chaired the event.
Nuclear energy has been a divisive technology since its inception. Whether it has been a success or not will largely depend on what side of the debate you sit on.
Nuclear advocates will raise the decades of low carbon energy it has produced while opponents point to accidents such as Chernobyl and the escalating costs of new projects like Hinkley point C.
The long awaited IPCC WG3 report: “Climate change 2022: Mitigation of. climate change” failed clear things up. While the report doesn’t explicitly support or oppose nuclear, the report found an increase in global nuclear share in most mitigation pathway models. The implication was that nuclear is a solution, just not for every country.
So where does that leave the UK? The Uk has a nuclear capacity of -6.5GW which produces – 1st. of its electricity. That’s half of peak capacity of 13GW in 1999. Almost all currently operating nuclear reactors are due for closure within the next decade, with 6GW under construction.
In the UK, political parties are divided on the continued use (or even expansion) of nuclear energy. The Conservative government plan to increase that capacity to 244W, an equivalent of 25% of electricity demand, by 2050. Labour’s 2019 manifesto commits to 90% of Uk electricity from “renewables & nuclear” by 2030. Liberal Democrats MPs appear split on the issue while Party policy is ofﬁcially opposed to new nuclear, though supports maintaining current nuclear capacity for its projected lifespan. The Green Party, unsurprisingly for a Party founded an opposition to nuclear in the 70s, opposes both new nuclear and would decommission operating nuclear reactors. So what is the right approach?
Is a 100% renewable energy grid possible?
When asked if UK electricity demand could be met by 100% renewables, Bill conceded that given infinite time, it could: “[100% renewables is possible given] infinite time, but nuclear is needed for baseload while renewables and storage system technology is developed and installed”. This viewpoint was countered by Penelope who pointed to recent changes in the grid code as a breakthrough moment for renewables. This was a reference to a grid modification which allows converter-connected technologies (e.g. solar and wind) to be grid-forming, creating an effective synchronous supply. Penelope pointed to comments made by Tony Johnson who led the National Grid ESO, calling it a “breakthrough moment… as we transition away from conventional fossil fuel generation”. Though the National Grid doesn’t go as far as saying 100% renewable grid is possible, Penelope questioned the narrative that it isn’t possible, claiming it is pushed by “media, which is a for-profit system” and “crony capitalism” where “business interests are presented as state interests”.
However, Penelope did concede that “more investment in the improvement and advancement of battery technology” was required, but that the intermittency of renewables could be supported by the focus on “regular” (e.g. solar/ tidal) technology. Penelope raised the Swansea By tidal lagoon proposal that would have supplied electricity to “600,000 residents”. The proposal was brought forward under David Cameron only to be scrapped by Johnson. This highlighted that the UK “needs continuity of Government” if we are to deliver on net-zero.
Large-scale nuclear represents the traditional centralised grid approach to energy supply while renewables can contribute towards a de-centralised power supply. For Adrian, this is a key difference and quoted the National Grid in saying that a decentralised power supply was likely the future direction since it offered greater flexibility.
Are nuclear energy risks too high?
Nuclear energy undeniably poses significant risks. In 1979, the 3 Mile Island nuclear facility in Pennsylvania had a partial meltdown of one of its reactors. A failure in the pressurised water reactor as a result of earlier maintenance. The radiation exposure was limited to people inside the facility with an estimated radiation exposure of less than 1 chest x-ray (14µSv).
Of more significant consequences was Chernobyl in 1986. In this case, a design flaw in the reactor shutdown process triggered the melting of the reactor core which distributed airbourne radioactive contaminants. Estimating the fatalities associated with the radiation exposure is challenging. There were initially 30 fatalities with a further 2 attributed to radiation exposure within the 10 years following the incident. It is estimated that the radiation exposure would cause approximately 4,000 additional cancer-related fatalities but this has not been demonstrated to-date.
The most recent nuclear disaster was Fukishima. A 9.1 magnitude earthquake of the coast of Japan triggered a Tsunami with waves up to 40.5 metres high. The earthquake led to a reactor electricity supply failure and the subsequent Tsunami flooded the reactor building causing the emergency generators to fail. Alongside airbourne radioactive contaminants, large amount of radioactive active isotopes were released into the Pacific Ocean. Current studies have not demonstrated any radiation-induced fatalities, however an increase in child thyroid cancer rates as observed in Chernobyl is anticipated with a small number of attributable fatalities.
The 3 incidents represent the most well-known and significant nuclear energy disasters. Do they represent a warning against continued use of nuclear energy or are they simply a result of outdated technology or poor planning?
For Penelope, the different nature of the disasters is what is most concerning. “highly sensitive radioactive material is vulnerable to [various] externalities… of human error… and elemental forces… and of military action”. Penelope’s implication is that can you ever plan against all these externalities?
While Bill recognised the risks associated with nuclear energy, UK standards and newer technology would mean UK nuclear power stations “wouldn’t be vulnerable to any of the things that caused those accidents”. Bill went back to the question of whether a 100% renewable energy grid is possible and, if it isn’t, then the relative risk of nuclear is dwarfed by that of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.
Concerns of nuclear waste were addressed by Adrian who raised the storage of ‘high level waste”, and “how certain we can store waste millions of years” and the consequences of exposure to radioactive waste if it leaks. Adrian pointed to the inability to agree a location for a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF), the new standard for storing radioactive waste, after several locations have been rejected. Bill, who recently held a meeting at Westminster for industry leaders looking at a new GDF, argued that a site for waste was required regardless to house our existing waste and “shouldn’t be relevant to whether we add to it”. Bill also raised that “modern technology has found a much better way of delivering safe nuclear energy… [producing] much less waste”
Costs and the wait for nuclear fusion
The cost of nuclear energy has been a focus of many critics. Hinkley Point C costs have escalated well beyond Government estimates and will reach £33bn. Similarly, latest Sizewell C estimates have the total cost at £30bn. Combined, the sites have a capacity of 6,500MWe (90% load factor), the equivalent of 15% of UK electricity needs, at a cost of £63bn. Comparing this to the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon (cost £1.3bn and a capacity to meet 0.15% of UK electricity demand – 350MWe with a 19% load factor), the two nuclear power station projects work out at half the cost per GWh of electricity supplied to the grid.
Bill used France as an example of how this relative cost actually results in nuclear energy proving good value to the consumer: “France has very large energy program and lower energy prices than Uk [and have] demonstrated scalability of nuclear”. Adrian countered that nuclear energy projects such as Hinkley Point C have a long leading time of “at least 10 years” and investment into nuclear energy has the effect of “squeezing renewables” which is resulting in the delay of delivering net zero. Adrian proposed to instead “[divert] money directly into a massive expansion of renewables”. Interestingly, in perhaps an indication of a softening of The Green Party’s views on legacy nuclear energy in light of the energy crisis, Adrian finished with stating that he was “not proposing ceasing using existing nuclear power stations”.
The final topic discussed was the potential of nuclear fusion. While conventional nuclear energy systems are based on nuclear fission, nuclear fusion has been in development as an energy system for decades. Conceptually, nuclear fusion is superior to nuclear fission in that it is a self-sustaining reactor that produces more energy than is put into the system and produces no long-lived isotopes. While a recent announcement that the first successful “breakeven” controlled fusion experiment showed progress, it is generally accepted that a commercial fusion reactor remains decades away.
Nuclear fusion: Adrian asked “we’ve been waiting for nuclear fusion for the last 30 years” “what technologies are going to be available in the timescales needed to address the climate emergency”. “No evidence we will get [nuclear fusion] by 2050”.
While both the Conservatives and Labour view nuclear energy as very much part of our future, it is clear that there are significant concerns amongst others. The calculation of relative cost (both financial and environmental) against fossil fuels is favourable to nuclear, yet many increasingly view renewables as the best option to deliver the flexibility and rapid deployment that is needed to meet our net zero targets.
About the author
Mark was the 2019 Parliamentary Candidate for Guildford.