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  1. Spotlight on Policy
6 December 2019updated 16 Sep 2021 4:50pm

The nuclear option

The United Kingdom is a global leader in its response to climate change. In the last century our scientists helped raise public understanding of the issue. More recently initiatives like emissions trading and legally binding carbon budgets were pioneered here. Since 1990 UK carbon emissions have fallen faster than any other developed country. In the last decade generous subsidies have made our offshore wind industry the biggest in the world.

Despite these achievements the UK must raise its game to maintain this leadership. Setting a net-zero emissions target is easy. The real task is to find a credible pathway for achieving it.

An essential element of this must be total decarbonisation of the electricity generation industry. Despite the growth of renewables almost 45 per cent of UK electricity was generated by coal and gas last year. No form of cost-effective carbon capture and storage yet exists anywhere in the world. It would be recklessly irresponsible to base climate policy on the assumption it will be available soon. Fossil fuel use must therefore end completely by 2050 at the latest.

The challenge this poses is significantly increased by the switch to electric vehicles, the replacement of gas by electricity for heating, and the very rapid expansion of electricity-intensive data processing technologies. Together these factors mean that, regardless of better energy efficiency and demand-side management, demand for electricity will increase substantially by 2050.

In addition, the planned closure of all our existing nuclear power stations, which still generate over a third of the UK’s low-carbon electricity, makes reaching our carbon-reduction targets even harder.

Even after the wholly welcome expansion of renewable energy it would have to more than quadruple from its present level to replace both fossil fuels and nuclear by 2050. Nearly all this increase in new renewable capacity would have to come from intermittent sources such as wind and solar.

Large-scale, flexible, low-cost, long-term electricity storage, does not yet exist. Any country planning to rely mainly on wind and solar to maintain the uninterrupted supply of electricity which all modern economies require will therefore have to invest in very substantial amounts of back-up generation capacity.

The OECD has already warned of how the extra system costs of intermittent renewables will sharply rise as reliance on them in any country approaches 50 per cent and could be penal at penetration levels above three-quarters.

Historically, only two countries – France and Sweden – have ever cut carbon emissions from electricity generation as fast as the UK must now do to reach net zero by 2050. Both did so, in the wake of the 1970s oil crisis by investing massively in new nuclear plants.

Against this backdrop it is strange that anyone purporting to be concerned about climate change should oppose the use of nuclear energy, the only sustainable source of large-scale dispatchable power that also enhances energy security. The low-carbon credentials of nuclear energy are impeccable. Its safety record is outstanding. Nuclear waste does not threaten the health of the public, unlike fossil fuels which shorten the lives of hundreds of millions of urban dwellers worldwide, including many in the UK, on a daily basis.

Claims by enthusiastic supporters of renewables that new nuclear plants are no longer cost-competitive following the impressive reduction in the price of wind and solar power fail on two grounds. First, they ignore the fact that in addressing the climate emergency we do not have the luxury of time. Without action in the 2020s the world will exceed the level of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere which make a rise in global average surface temperature of more than 2°C unavoidable. Within five years, debate about energy policy will stop being about how much decarbonisation costs. Instead it will be about whether and how to do it quickly enough to prevent large parts of our planet from becoming uninhabitable by humans.

Second, the cost comparisons between intermittent renewables and nuclear are rarely made on a like-for-like basis. Phase one of the world’s largest offshore wind farm, Hornsea, began generating in UK waters earlier this year. The price of its electricity is a whopping £155/MWh, and that does not include the system costs referred to above.

The huge subsidy which forces UK consumers to pay makes the allegedly high cost of Hinkley Point C, the nuclear plant now being built in Somerset, look like a bargain. The public, however, is soothed by reports of the latest contracts for offshore wind turbines being let at £40/MWh, ignoring the fact that it will be years before these come onstream.

Once the UK moves from building a first-of-a-kind nuclear plant to developing a series of identical plants the cost of nuclear will fall sharply. There are enough sites already licensed for nuclear installations to allow a swift roll-out of such plants if the political will existed. Furthermore the potential for capturing economies of scale is likely to increase as a new generation of small modular reactors becomes available. These advanced reactors also offer the UK a chance to compete once more on the world stage.

Over 60 years ago the world’s first civil nuclear plant opened in the UK. Until a Conservative government abandoned nuclear energy in favour of gas towards the end of the last century we remained an international competitor in the nuclear industry.

Today, by throwing our weight behind the development of advanced modular reactors, we could both help avoid dangerous irreversible climate change and also reap an economic reward by taking part in the growth of a new industry. What better Christmas present could a government starting its term of office next month give to the global environment and the British people?

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