Nuclear energy is the monster looming in our public consciousness, fuelled by infamous accidents such as Chernobyl, Fukushima and Sellafield. However, in mining communities across the UK, other names of collieries and disasters may be a more haunting litany and legacy.
The amount of electricity that comes from nuclear power plants has declined, from 25 percent in the late 1990s to 16 percent in 2020. If no other nuclear power plants are built, then by 2050, the UK’s nuclear capacity will be a third of what it is today, raising the question of how the UK will meet its rising energy needs. While the demand for renewables is certainly growing, what is less well noticed is that the demand for natural gas has also being growing.
The UK’s energy needs
At present, nuclear energy produces between 15 and 20 percent of the UK’s electricity at any one time. If nuclear energy was suddenly to be scrapped, then we would have to source this energy from elsewhere and we are not currently in a position to do that.
In 2020, UK nuclear plants produced enough electricity to meet the needs of 11.75 million homes. If Hinkley Point C in Somerset and Sizewell C in Suffolk come online, each station could generate the electricity to meet the needs of six million homes.
What do UK citizens think about nuclear energy?
A recent YouGov Survey (Oct 2021) revealed that only 12 percent of Britons said that we should not generate any nuclear energy at all. Two thirds believed that nuclear should play a part in the country’s climate change strategy, including 34 percent who said that nuclear should play a major role.
In its Sixth Carbon Budget Report presented to government, the UK’s climate change committee (CCC) found that nuclear power will be needed to complement energy from renewables if the UK is to meet its net zero goal by 2050. The CCC further estimates that a nuclear capacity of 10GW will be needed.
“Continuing to reduce emissions from electricity generation while meeting new demands from the electrification of heat and transport will require a portfolio of generation technologies. That includes variable renewables and other low-carbon options (e.g. nuclear, gas CCS, hydrogen), as well as flexible demand and storage.”
Both the public and independent government advice then is that nuclear energy must play a part in reducing our reliance on fossil fuels.
Is nuclear energy renewable?
Oddly, the question of whether nuclear energy is renewable is not as straightforward as it might appear. On the one hand, as nuclear plants do not emit greenhouse gases, then in terms of climate change, they could be described as ‘renewable’. However, others describe nuclear energy as non-renewable owing to the uranium that is used, as well as the construction materials of the plants.
The EU is currently proposing to classify nuclear energy as a green energy source in terms of investment, stating that:
“There is a role for natural gas and nuclear as a means to facilitate the transition towards a predominantly renewable-based future … this would mean classifying these energy sources under clear and tight conditions, in particular as they contribute to the transition to climate neutrality.”
Germany has rejected the proposal to designate nuclear energy as renewable, and has described nuclear energy as dangerous, although it has offered a caveat that it may consider it to be renewable is there is a plan to dispose of nuclear waste. Germany is aiming to close off its remaining three nuclear plants by the end of 2022, while France is looking to expand its number of nuclear plants, to meet their future energy needs. Consistent messaging on the future of nuclear energy seems to be divided.
How safe is nuclear energy?
The organisation ‘Our World in Data’ has completed a thorough analysis and comparison of energy sources globally and has highlighted the huge discrepancy between deaths attributed to fossil fuel usage from coal and oil, compared with those from nuclear energy. This includes the number of deaths from Chernobyl and Fukushima, the two ghosts of the nuclear accident past.
It is noticeable how comparatively similar the number of deaths and emissions are from nuclear, solar and wind energy, though our belief that nuclear energy is dangerous for causing deaths, is a much stronger belief than we have for comparative energy sources.
Nuclear waste- the process for storage
Sellafield is the only nuclear site in the country that can safely manage all three forms of radioactive waste: low, intermediate and high. The sire currently manages approximately 80 percent of the UK’s intermediate and high-level nuclear waste. Intermediate and high-level nuclear waste is stored at Sellafield pending consignment to its resting place at the UK’s geological disposal facility. The process to find a safe and publicly acceptable location for this site is ongoing.
Can we achieve net zero as a country without nuclear energy?
Cutting our reliance on fossil fuels really needs to be viewed as more important than whether we switch to ‘renewables’ or nuclear energy, or a hybrid of both. With fossil fuel companies like Shell and ExxonMobil spending millions of pounds on Google adverts to appear more ‘green’ than they actually may be, or ‘greenwashing’ as it is known, perhaps they are benefiting while our ire is being taken out on nuclear energy.
According to government projections of energy demand up to 2040, nuclear energy increases its usage while renewables match their current demand. This suggests that nuclear energy will still be in the energy mix in 20 years’ time, so we should be more informed about what it can offer.
With the Hartlepool nuclear plant on Yorkshire’s doorstep – and with nuclear energy not being removed from the UK’s energy projections, nor from those of some of the big nuclear players above – it would seem wise to begin to have a more balanced view of nuclear energy, and instead ask why natural gas and oil dependency still remain a large part of energy demand in the UK.