Is nuclear power necessary?

Do we need nuclear power? We look at both sides of the argument...
02 February 2021

Interview with 

David Toke, University of Aberdeen, Michael Rushton, Bangor University,


An electric pylon sitting in the middle of a field


The big question is, do we need nuclear at all? Is it cost effective, or a money pit? And are the alternative, non-nuclear options up to the job in terms of dependability and resilience? And can they meet the changing pattern of energy consumption, especially as we wean ourselves off fossil fuels and plug in more electric cars? Is nuclear an expensive luxury or an essential ingredient in our race to cut carbon emissions to combat climate change? Chris Smith spoke with two academics about this. Michael Rushton is at Bangor University where he looks at nuclear materials and how they behave. And David Toke is from the University of Aberdeen where he works on energy policy and renewables...

Michael - The energy generated in 2019 was about 325 terawatt hours. That's significant, but that only represents 20% of our overall energy use, we also have heating and transport; so as we decarbonise, it's expected a lot of that will be moved to electricity production. That's why we're talking about, "how do we expand electricity generation capacity?" Nuclear at the moment generates 17% of that, and in terms of the low carbon component of that energy generation, that's about 32%. It's diminishing at the moment - we've got quite an old nuclear fleet - so the discussion now is, "how do we replace our existing nuclear power stations?" Or indeed, some people argue we shouldn't.

Chris - Yes indeed, because I think we've got six nuclear installations that are scheduled to shut by 2030; this is less than 10 years away. What are we going to replace them with? I mean, is there a plan to replace them at all?

Michael - Well currently, in the South West, they're building the Hinkley Point C reactor. It's a French design, it's an EPR reactor which will generate 3.2 gigawatts of power - that's its maximum output, that's between two reactors - and that's under construction now. The typical build time for one of these very large reactors is about eight years. It's currently underway now, and once complete, it will be expected to generate 7% of the UK's electricity. There are plans underway to build another one of those, another duel EPR set up: Sizewell C. Sizewell B, of course, is the last nuclear reactor we built in the UK, which represented a change from what we'd been doing before: it was a pressurised water reactor. During the early days of nuclear and through to the early eighties, the UK had gone its own way and made gas reactors, so we've got these quite novel reactors running at the moment. And only through the eighties, when we built the PWR, did we start building the same sorts of reactors that the rest of the world built. And that's how we're continuing now with these light water reactors.

Chris - David Toke: it's a big number, isn't it? Nearly a third of the electricity now flowing through our grid is coming from renewables. Now if you'd said that to somebody 10 years ago, they probably would have massively underestimated where we would be by today. It really has come on in my view.

David - Yes. And I think there's a massive potential to do more. I think the government's climate advisors suggest that we're going to need a very big increase in electricity production; but based on their figures, you would actually need to take up, in terms of space, only 7% of the UK's offshore waters to supply all the energy requirements of the UK in 2015. By all I mean ALL; not just currently supplied by electricity, but transport, heating, industry, et cetera.

Chris - That's not much is it? I mean, it points to another important thing we should probably discuss, which is of course: when you build a nuclear power station - at least the current design of nuclear power stations we have right now - you're putting an enormous spend and an enormous facility in one place. And of course, we don't all live in one place, so that immediately means you've got a distribution problem. So is there another advantage to distributing things like wind farms? I mean, I know you've got to bring the energy ashore in the first place, but that can be done. Is there an advantage to spreading things out a bit more rather than focusing the energy in one place, like in a big nuclear installation?

David - Well, yes, it is easier on the electricity system if things suddenly go down; but also we're moving into a much more digitalised, computer-controlled age, where we have an integration of energy supply and energy demand. We're going to have cars that talk to the electricity system and transfer energy both ways through batteries, and we'll even have washing machines that talk to the grid in future. Decentralised forms of energy - that is, energy that produces without a centralised command from the grid - are really much more in tune with modernity than, dare I say, clunky old nuclear power.

Chris - I suppose you'd say though, Michael - not withstanding what Dave is pointing out - that actually the sun doesn't shine at night and the wind doesn't always blow.

Michael - No, it certainly doesn't. On the figures from last year, the wind turbines only generated 30% of their total output. Then there are whole days, we all know the cold, clear days where you have extended periods of high pressure over the entire country, and those are the days you want to turn your heating on. So if we're talking about electrifying heating and the wind's not blowing, what do you do then? You need something to fill in that lack of power. Also, to come back to that idea of the area, I've got some numbers written down in front of me: Hinkley Point C is a 430 acre site. There's a wind farm just down the road from me where I live that generates 567 megawatts - and that's six times less power than the Hinkley Point C installation - and that takes up 50 times the area. So nuclear power is incredibly compact, and frankly, not everyone wants to look at wind turbine spoiling nasty views.

Chris - Well I don't think many people want to look at Hinkley Power Station necessarily either!

Michael - But it's a small installation, and you don't have to look at it. Turn your back. But wind turbines take up a considerable part of the coastline.

Chris - Well can we look at the cost for a second? Because David: how much does the 30% or so of our energy coming from much does that cost to install in the first place? Because I've just looked at the price tag for Hinkley, which Michael's just mentioned -` this new nuclear power station, which is still...prices are still rising - the price tag on that is 23 billion pounds. So how much does our infrastructure from renewables cost to install?

David - A small fraction of that price. But can I come back to the points that were made? Sure, I accept that you can go days on end without sufficient wind or sun, but you can easily store the renewable energy by converting it into a range of different liquid fuels, or even water capacity, and use extremely cheap engines or turbines to produce the electricity when you need it. And if you have a system involving substantial amounts of nuclear power, because it has to be made - for financial reasons - to run practically all the time, it's inflexible; and you'll end up knocking off a lot of wind farms off the grid and wasting their energy. This is already happening in Scotland, where there's a lot of grid constraints. We've done quite a bit of research on that. And with that wind power or solar power that's wasted, you can in effect store it and use it when you want it; and we've got plenty of batteries to even out flows within the day; and you've got longer term means of storage, as I say! And this business about the space things are taking up: well, as I say, we're developing wind farm technology that's increasingly cheap in price that's miles and miles away from the shore. Floating wind turbines, even, so you don't need to worry about seeing them. I don't think there's a problem here. I mean, admittedly, there's more space for wind turbines on shore in Scotland than there are around Cambridge, but really that doesn't matter with the amount of offshore resources we've got for offshore wind in this country.

Chris - One thing that's not that far away though, is 2050. At the rate at which time is increasingly on wheels, and that's the date that we have said, we're going to try and be zero carbon. But looking at the figures, we've got a long way to go. We're still obtaining in the ballpark of half our energy from fossil fuels. And if, as Michael's pointing out, you end up with the wind not blowing, and the sun not shining at certain points of the day, we do need something to smooth things out, and we don't have, I know what you said, but we don't have the infrastructure yet to have mass storage of this energy. And it's very expensive to do so. People have put forward ideas of; let's shunt some of the spare energy into people's car batteries. But a few percent of people have electric cars at the moment. And an even smaller proportion will be willing to have their batteries potentially damaged, by the relentless shunting of energy backwards and forwards from their car onto the grid. So there's quite a way to go. Wouldn't you say, David? Yeah?.

David - Well, yes, but you try building nuclear power stations. I mean, we've had attempts to get new nuclear online, first announced by Tony Blair in 2006. And if we're lucky, very lucky, we might get one online 20 years later, in 2026. I mean, you can take carbon dioxide out of the air and change it into some synthetic fuel like petrol. There are probably better means of even doing it than that, and you can store these things, hydrogen, through water storage. God knows, lots of things, but no money is being spent on this. This could be quite easily put together, a market set up to get the best mix of technologies to provide long-term storage. But we've got an energy system, and energy companies that have their business in either or both fossil fuels and nuclear power. And of course they're not producing any policy reports, or any pressure to do stuff about a hundred percent renewable energy system. They've got it all tied up. Well, we need to get people to push for the government, to get some thinking on providing a much higher level of energy from renewable energy, leading up to eventually what will be a hundred percent renewable supply.

Chris - Michael, there was an interesting idea floated by Rolls Royce recently, and this was their concept of what they dub an SMR, small modular reactors. We've talked about big installations like Sizewell and Hinkley, which are massive. In comparison, Rolls Royce envisage a fleet of small reactors, which they're saying you could build more locally. You could make them more aesthetic. Why do they think that that's the way to go?

Michael - Well, there's multiple reasons, really. The main problem with nuclear, it's nothing technical. We can build reactors, like as was mentioned before. The French built 56 reactors over 15 years to produce 50 gigawatts, and basically decarbonised their electricity system. One of the few in the world. So the trouble is getting the finance to build the reactors. That's the thing that's causing a problem at the moment. The main running cost of a nuclear reactor is meeting the debt. It's paying the mortgage on the reactor. So if we could bring that down to rates where you could borrow in the commercial markets and not have to go for handouts to the government, that would be beneficial. So one thought to do that is to make the reactor smaller. If you can bring the cost down to around 300 million pounds, and bring capacity to the grid incrementally, you can have a reactor that's quick to build, three or four years, it's earning for you, and you can borrow more easily to build the next one. And you can incrementally bring capacity to the grid. Because at the moment with these big reactors, we're dumping a lot of capacity on the grid in one go, right? So you have to wait eight years and then you get a huge amount of power, and you get that for about 60 to 80 years, right? So these things are going to be around for two to three times longer than wind turbines and that sort of thing. So that needs to be born in mind. There's other things we could do with small modular reactors. Because they're small, the components can be built in factories. So you get those economies of scale. The idea is if you build lots of them, you bring the unit costs down dramatically. Rolls Royce are also talking about, could we start doing things like cogeneration. Reactors generate lots of heat. And one of the issues we're going to have in the future is not everything can be electrified. Not all our industries can be converted to electricity.

Chris - Things like making concrete, making iron and steel. That kind of thing.

Michael - Certainly. Particularly the iron and steel case, like a blast furnace uses coal as a chemical there, it's not used just for the heat. So you could use a bit of hydrogen, that's already been mentioned, you know, nuclear can also generate hydrogen. Nuclear can also pump in a bit of heat. For iron and steel, you'd actually be looking at a second generation of reactors looking more the mid 2030s. So this way you'd go back to what Britain is good at actually, gas reactors, which can run a lot hotter. If you could get those up to 800 or 900 degrees, you could make steel using nuclear power. If there was a bit of a push that we do have the technology to decarbonise these difficult to decarbonise processes, that aren't suitable for electrification.

Chris - It's a fascinating application, actually, the idea of coupling up a reactor to really use it as a heat source rather than just an electricity source. Now, just in closing, I'd actually like to come back to a point that both of you have made along the way, and that's this question of aesthetics, and also the perception we were hearing from Matt Rooney earlier about what people's perceptions are about these different things. And there's a difference between older people and young people. People who have, and haven't had experience in the industry, are more or less educated about the science involved. So what do you think, David first, needs to really happen from your perspective for more people to be supportive of where you're coming from in this regard?

David - I think people are supportive of where I'm coming from. I think curiously enough, the outlandish ideas, I'm not trying to be insulting or anything, are with things like small modular reactors, which have been tried many times before, and they actually exist in the form of nuclear submarines. And they're extremely expensive. I mean, there are a million issues with that. I think this really is a question of engineering, interest taking account of what is wishful thinking. Renewable energy, solar power, wind power, electric cars, batteries are the thing that are cheapest, obviously practical, we ought to firm that up, improve the systems for that. And we can produce hydrogen for niche sources, like making concrete and so on from that, I don't see a problem with that. That's ready. We can go ahead with that, now. We don't have to entertain these, what I think are unlikely ideas.

Chris - Michael, you've got a bit of an uphill struggle to come up with a compelling argument, really, when you're faced with the fact that you could just build a whole heap of wind turbines, and they're not going to be a blot on the landscape, if you don't want them to be, you take them away.

Michael - A lot of the previous discussion is predicated on technologies that don't exist at the scale that they needed for. So if you want to go to these large amounts of wind 70, 80, 90%, that means you've displaced things like dispatchable sources, like gas. Now, as we've gone through, the wind doesn't blow all the time. So how are you going to fill that gap? Well, we've already had the discussion that we're going to use batteries, apparently. Now the largest battery storage methods at the moment cost a lot of money. There's also competition for those cells for making electric cars, which we also need to decarbonise transport. So, the current battery storage lasts for only a few hours at very low power outputs. It's not credible, what's being argued here. So all these ideas that washing machines that can talk to the generator, that doesn't exist now, right? We're in the middle of a climate emergency. Why are we reaching for tools that don't exist? We should rely on the technologies that have been proven over 60 years.


Add a comment