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Is nuclear power the key to reaching net zero?

Despite recent breakthroughs in nuclear fusion, renewables remain the most important technology for reaching net zero.

By Paul Dorfman

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on 13 December 2022. On Monday (31 July 2023), the UK government announced plans to hit 24 gigawatts of nuclear generating capacity by 2050. Ministers are yet to outline how they will achieve that goal and it brings up the question again of whether or not nuclear power is the most important technology for reaching net zero.

“Fissile fuel” is back – or so say the UK’s policy teams and press. Rishi Sunak and Emmanuel Macron are about to strike a deal on nuclear cooperation, and recent editorials across national newspapers all reckon everything in the garden is nuclear. Where, however, is the evidence for its efficacy?

The British and French governments can sign any deal they like – if key financial investors don’t take up the remaining 60 per cent of construction costs, the planned Sizewell C plant in Suffolk is going nowhere. The omens aren’t good. Recently Sir Nigel Wilson, group CEO of Legal & General, one of the UK’s largest real assets firms, told BBC Radio Four: “We are not big fans of Sizewell C.” Sir David King, the UK’s former chief scientific adviser and a long-standing nuclear supporter, told LBC that the plant would be “very difficult to protect from flooding” due to rising sea levels on the Suffolk coast.

With little interest from the City, and given that the financial advisory firm Lazard says utility-scale solar and onshore wind power can be developed at about a quarter of the cost, perhaps the Prime Minister should take the Treasury’s concerns about the costs of nuclear energy more seriously.

Then there’s the saga of the European pressurised reactor (EPR), being built by the energy company EDF in France, which is vastly delayed and over-budget. And don’t let EDF tell you things are going to plan at Hinkley Point C, in Somerset, as the company has secured a new “contingency option” in its contract to ensure funding continues, even if the reactors have not started generating power by 2036.

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The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) admits that nuclear power plants have long construction periods, often 13 to 17 years from the final investment decision. This means Sizewell C is not expected to generate power until between 2036 and 2040 – far too late for our energy and climate crises.

And EDF is in deep trouble financially. It is €43 billion in debt, its accounts say, and faces further billions in losses this year, with exponential radioactive waste and decommissioning costs on the horizon. Macron is having to fully nationalise the ailing company, which has an estimated €50 billion bill for its mandatory reactor safety upgrades.

A very recent breakthrough in nuclear fusion research is making headlines, but it’s worth noting that the energy created was only 0.5 per cent of the energy used to power the process. The researchers put in 500 megajoules (MJ) of energy to power the lasers needed to get 2.5 MJ out. Limitless, cheap nuclear power is still a very long way away.

Luckily, help is at hand. According to Renew Economy, last year solar and wind made up three-quarters of new electricity generation capacity installed worldwide. Including other renewables, the proportion was 84 per cent.

A recent study from the energy think tanks E3G and Ember also found that wind and solar has produced a quarter of EU electricity since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February this year, avoiding €11bn in gas costs. Perhaps this is because Lazard has found that while the levelised cost of nuclear-generated electricity averages around $160 per MWh (megawatt hour), utility-scale solar and wind power comes in at an average of around just $40 per MWh.

[See also: Will carbon capture help us reach net zero?]

That’s why renewables supplied 40 per cent of UK electricity in 2021 and a quarter of US electricity during the first half of 2022. All this because utility-scale renewables can be built relatively cheaply, on time and to budget.

With Lord Grimstone, the UK’s former investment minister, noting that North Sea wind power will be more valuable to the UK than the oil and gas industry, there’s nobody left to dispute that the UK’s net-zero heavy-lifting will be done by renewable energy. As very recent Oxford University and University College London (UCL) research both show, utility-scale renewable systems are comfortably the most cost-effective form of electricity production and carbon dioxide mitigation. UCL said that “the current favourable UK government policy towards nuclear is becoming increasingly difficult to justify”.

As for the idea that renewables are too variable to handle it, the international consultancy McKinsey says that renewables are poised to become the backbone of the world’s power supply. The reality is, it’s entirely possible to sustain a reliable electricity system using renewable energy.

It’s not just that nuclear is slow and expensive – it’s just far too inflexible to go up and down with the swings of demand. In contrast, the variability of wind and solar technologies can be more easily integrated into evolving, flexible electricity grids.

And in terms of climate, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has just published its World Energy Outlook 2022, effectively concluding that renewables are the most important way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the electricity sector. The IEA also says that renewables will be the world’s largest source of power by early 2025, adding 2,400 gigawatts (GW) of new electricity capacity over the next five years, an amount equal to the entire power capacity of China today.

Not forgetting the lowest hanging fruit – energy efficiency. Reducing the UK’s overall energy demand is at the heart of a fair, affordable, and sustainable net zero. The UK Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions (Creds) has carried out the most comprehensive assessment to date, and it turns out that our energy use can be hugely reduced while still maintaining energy security and quality of life.

This winter, with millions struggling due to the cost-of-living and energy crises, stuffing vast sums of public money into the deep pockets of EDF won’t look good.

In terms of cost, time and practicality, the actions that will power the UK’s net-zero energy transition are: renewable expansion in all sectors; energy efficiency and management; rapidly advancing storage technologies; grid modernisation; interconnection; and market innovation from supply to service provision.

The weight of evidence shows us that due to the pace, scale and economics of the renewable evolution, all nuclear can do is make promises it can’t keep and fire up the zeitgeist with questionable data. Despite all the nuclear sound and fury, fissile fuel will turn out to just be an expensive distraction.

[See also: Is nuclear energy actually sustainable?]

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