Nuclear power is making a slow comeback as a low-carbon energy source, is it time for a rebrand?
The use of nuclear energy as a source of electricity in Britain is facing a revival after former Secretary of State for Energy Security, Grant Shapps, launched the Great British Nuclear (GBN) body. He also committed to an investment of £20bn for the development of new nuclear plants, reactors, and technologies. In 2022, 14.7% of the UK’s electricity generation came from nuclear energy, but it looks as though this number is going to become far higher. His announcement comes with ambitious promises of meeting 2050 net zero carbon emission targets, creating 10,000 new jobs, powering 6 million homes and making the national grid of Britain a whole lot greener.
It is really great to see that the work of scientists and engineers to develop nuclear energy into a viable, safer energy source is being appreciated and invested in. Yet, does the idea of nuclear energy providing future jobs and low carbon emissions outweigh the stark, present realities of toxic nuclear waste in the environment, delayed construction schedules and the huge safety risk posed by plant leaks? What does a nuclear renaissance really mean for the people of Britain both now and for generations to come?
Firstly, we should lay out the principles of nuclear energy production. In a commercial setting this is as so: Uranium atoms are split by fission in a chain reaction, which produces enough energy to heat up a nuclear reactor’s cooling agent (often water), creating steam. The steam in turn will drive turbines to spin causing generators to produce electricity. Fuels other than uranium may be used, however, uranium undergoes fission quite easily. Whilst uranium is a relatively common and abundant element contained in rocks across the globe, U-235, the specific type of uranium required to produce nuclear energy, is rare.
So far, the process of nuclear energy production should ring no serious alarm bells in terms of carbon emissions and pollution. The steam produced is recycled back into water via cooling towers, and any excess steam is ultimately safe to be released into the atmosphere. As a result, according to the European Union, nuclear energy is climate-friendly. However, as is the norm in climate issues – it is not necessarily the day-to-day processes we need to consider but rather the aftermath. A major drawback of nuclear energy is that nuclear reactors produce radioactive waste.
The radioactive waste takes the form of fuel rods (called spent fuel) used during the reaction process, workers’ clothing, and tools. Waste contains unstable nuclei of atoms which can persist for thousands of years and wreak havoc on any organisms that come into contact. Therefore, strict policies and regulations are put in place to ensure the environment is not contaminated. Storage techniques include dry storage tanks or larger water containers used to cool and insulate the spent fuel. High-level waste can then only be disposed deep in the ground after 50 years of storage. However, 90% of waste produced is low-level and sent to near-surface disposal units much faster. Decommissioning waste is a mammoth task. Take, for example, Sellafield, the UK’s first nuclear reactor. It stopped producing energy in 2003, yet has a current decommissioning timeline that stops in 2140. This is waste that festers beyond the lifespan of someone born 10 years from now.
The fate of radioactive waste in the environment is a key controversy of nuclear energy. There are very few who don’t immediately cast their mind to the nuclear explosion in 1986 at Chernobyl. Even closer to home, a fire outbreak in 1956 at Windscale, England saw the release of radioactive iodine-131 – a cancer causing chemical – into the surrounding environment.
Considering the triumphs and drawbacks of nuclear energy, the deadweight seems to be the radioactive waste. As a result and to the credit of scientists, the development of advanced reactors which produce much less nuclear waste is one of the projects to be focused on by GBN.
With all this talk of nuclear renaissance, perhaps an overlooked drawback of nuclear investment is the potential diversion of funds from renewable energy projects such as solar, hydro and wind power? Both solar and wind power are much cheaper and quicker to set up than nuclear power plants. This contrasts greatly with the power plant Hinkley Point C that is now over budget and delayed from 2017 till 2027. Such information casts proposed GBN timelines in a confusing light. With a project that will supposedly take six years just to get the green light, and with production of electricity only to come in the 2030s, it is really hard to see the climate-friendly end goal.
Emerging out of a summer of flash floods, extreme temperatures, and increasingly frequent natural disasters across the globe, it almost feels out of touch to present a solution that comes into effect so far into the future. The climate crisis will not wait around for the take-off of GBN and the elongated construction times of nuclear power plants.
Yet, perhaps hesitations towards nuclear investment stem from widespread “old-fashioned” ideas as put by climate activist Ia Anstoot. In a bid to speak out against Greenpeace’s condemnation of nuclear power, Anstoot argued nuclear energy really does not hold a flame to the colossal damage brought on by continued fossil fuel use, and efforts should not be focused on nuclear energy specifically, but rather the general cessation of the use of fossil fuels. Perhaps we should be grateful that on 18 July, Grant Shapps did not announce increased fossil fuel dependence, but rather the increased use of a green energy source (even if it is a controversial one).
In a very British fashion, our movement towards a nuclear revolution is slow, reluctant, and maybe not fully thought through just yet. It also promises a move away from our historic love affair with fossil fuels, and it will be interesting to see whether Shapps’ approach is embraced by his newly appointed replacement: Claire Coutinho. Despite its controversies, nuclear energy appears to be the golden child 2050 net zero targets. As an embracer of change and sound scientific research, quite frankly, I’m curious to see how this all goes.