How the return of nuclear power can help get us to net zero

How the return of nuclear power can help get us to net zero

Nuclear power was the future once – and now it seems it is again as governments look for ways to meet their net-zero targets.

What’s happened?

The very modest success of the COP26 climate summit has refocused attention on the role of nuclear power as an almost zero-carbon, reliable source of non-intermittent energy that could prove crucial to meeting net-zero targets. “Nuclear power is the only carbon-free source that can deliver round-the-clock power, on demand, almost anywhere,”

Wind and solar are expanding fast, but nowhere near fast enough to take up the slack from fossil fuels. That means that nuclear will remain vital, at least as a transitional energy source and very conceivably in the long term too – especially if technological advances such as small modular reactors SMRs, and microreactors develop as hoped. Indeed, at COP itself, major industrial nations including the US, Russia, and Brazil all described nuclear energy as a major part of their decarbonisation strategy.

Don’t we rely on nuclear already?

Much less than we used to. Globally, nuclear power produces around 10% of the world’s electricity, making it the second-biggest source of low-carbon energy after hydroelectric power. But that’s a sharp drop from a peak of 18% in the mid-1990s. Many countries invested heavily in nuclear after the oil shocks of the 1970s, and in the ten years to 1992 the amount of nuclear energy consumed jumped by 130%.

Any signs of a turnaround?

China, the world’s biggest carbon emitter, is planning to build at least 150 nuclear reactors over the next 15 years, or more than the entire world has built since the mid-1980s. French president Emmanuel Macron said last week that his country “will for the first time in decades revive the construction of nuclear reactors” to reach its net-zero goal. The EU may be about to reclassify nuclear power as “green” to boost investment.

Through backing for firms such as TerraPower and PacifiCorp, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are championing a type of advanced small modular reactor (SMR) known as a “fast” Natrium reactor.

And in the UK, a consortium led by aero-engine maker Rolls Royce (and backed by the taxpayer) is investing £405m into a fleet of 12 SMRs as part of a new push into nuclear power designed to help the government meet

But isn’t nuclear power dangerous?

No. According to figures collated by OurWorldinData, nuclear energy is vastly safer, as measured by fatalities per terawatt hour of energy produced, than most other forms of generation. On that metric, coal causes 24.6 deaths, oil 18.4 deaths and natural gas 2.8 deaths. Nuclear, by contrast, causes just 0.07. (Wind is even lower at 0.04 and hydropower and solar lower still, at a 0.02.)

Sixty-five years after the start of the world’s first civil nuclear reactor at Calder Hall in England, “there remains no evidence of anyone’s health being jeopardized by radiation releases from a European nuclear plant” other than Chernobyl, says Jonathan Ford on Bloomberg. But no other European reactor shares the flawed design of the Chernobyl one, and seismic events of the sort that caused Fukushima are unknown here. (The disaster at Fukushima caused just one death from radiation.)

Nuclear is also, of course, much cleaner than fossil fuels –  producing three tonnes of greenhouse-gas emissions per gigawatt hour, compared with 820 for coal, 720 for oil and 490 for natural gas. Even solar and wind produce more emissions than nuclear.

So it’s a green energy?

That’s the subject of intense debate – not least among environmentalists themselves. Jacopo Buongiorno, a nuclear-engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calculates that, over the life cycle of power plants, which includes construction, mining, transport, operation, decommissioning and disposal of waste, the greenhouse-gas emissions for nuclear power are 1/700th those of coal, 1/400th of gas, and a quarter of solar. Nuclear takes up a tiny amount of land compared to wind or solar, and for the same power output the amount of raw material used to build a nuclear plant is also a tiny fraction of an equivalent solar or wind farm.

All that makes it incredibly green. But sceptics say this ignores the nuclear-waste issue, and that nuclear has no chance of preventing global heating due to the complexity, expense and decades-long lead times involved. Money spent on nuclear is money not spent on better options, they say.

So why the excitement over nuclear?

In the real world, nations face “not a beauty contest around the best energy choices”, but an “ugly contest” to pick the least-bad energy mix, says Gillian Tett in the FT. When it comes to transitioning away from fossils to renewables, we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

Nuclear power may be flawed – it’s expensive and politically risky – but it will be necessary if the world is going to rise to the challenge of halting climate change. “Those governments that continue to shun nuclear plants are haunted by the dirty secret that this move is likely to increase emissions.”

Meanwhile, in finance, ESG funds should be encouraged to embrace nuclear. There was much talk at COP26 of the wave of green money ready to hit markets. If some of that money accepts that “we live in a world of difficult energy trade-offs” – and funds the expansion of nuclear – it “may signal that the climate movement is also beginning to realise that we live in a world with 50 shifting shades of green”.

Government £12bn green recovery 10 point plan

Government £12bn green recovery 10 point plan

Ten-point £12bn Green Recovery economic spending plan announced by Boris Johnson.

Slowly but surely humanity is taking the upper hand in the fight against the virus. We have not won yet. There are still hard weeks and months to come. But with better drugs, testing and a range of vaccines, we know in our hearts that next year we will succeed. We will use science to rout the virus, and we must use the same extraordinary powers of invention to repair the economic damage from Covid-19, and to build back better.

Now is the time to plan for a green recovery with high-skilled jobs that give people the satisfaction of knowing they are helping to make the country cleaner, greener and more beautiful. Imagine Britain when a Green Industrial Revolution has helped to level up the country.

You cook breakfast using hydrogen power before getting in your electric car, having charged it overnight from batteries made in the Midlands. Around you the air is cleaner; trucks, trains, ships and planes run on hydrogen or synthetic fuel. British towns and regions — Teesside, Port Talbot, Port of Tyne, Merseyside and Mansfield — are now synonymous with green technology and jobs. This is where Britain’s ability to make hydrogen and capture carbon pioneered the decarbonisation of transport, industry and power.

My 10-point plan to get there will mobilise £12bn of government investment, and potentially three times as much from the private sector, to create and support up to 250,000 green jobs.

There will be electric vehicle technicians in the Midlands, construction and installation workers in the North East and Wales, specialists in advanced fuels in the North West, agroforestry practitioners in Scotland, and grid system installers everywhere. And we will help people train for these new green jobs through our Lifetime Skills Guarantee. Climate Capital Where climate change meets business, markets and politics.

This 10-point plan will turn the UK into the world’s number one centre for green technology and finance, creating the foundations for decades of economic growth.

One — we will make the UK the Saudi Arabia of wind with enough offshore capacity to power every home by 2030.

Two — we will turn water into energy with up to £500m of investment in hydrogen.

Three — we will take forward our plans for new nuclear power, from large scale to small and advanced modular reactors.

Four — we’ll invest more than £2.8bn in electric vehicles, lacing the land with charging points and creating long-lasting batteries in UK gigafactories. This will allow us to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans in 2030. However, we will allow the sale of hybrid cars and vans that can drive a significant distance with no carbon coming out of the tailpipe until 2035.

Five — we will have cleaner public transport, including thousands of green buses and hundreds of miles of new cycle lanes.

Six — we will strive to repeat the feat of Jack Alcock and Teddie Brown, who achieved the first nonstop transatlantic flight a century ago, with a zero emission plane. And we will do the same with ships.

Seven — we will invest £1bn next year to make homes, schools and hospitals greener, and energy bills lower.

Eight — we will establish a new world-leading industry in carbon capture and storage, backed by £1bn of government investment for clusters across the North, Wales and Scotland.

Nine — we will harness nature’s ability to absorb carbon by planting 30,000 hectares of trees a year by 2025 and rewilding 30,000 football pitches’ worth of countryside.

And ten — our £1bn energy innovation fund will help commercialise new low-carbon technologies, like the world’s first liquid air battery being developed in Trafford, and we will make the City of London the global centre for green finance through our sovereign bond, carbon offset markets and disclosure requirements.

This plan can be a global template for delivering net zero emissions in ways that create jobs and preserve our lifestyles.

On Wednesday I will meet UK businesses to discuss their contribution. We plan to provide clear timetables for the clean energy we will procure, details of the regulations we will change, and the carbon prices that we will put on emissions. I will establish a “task force net zero” committed to reaching net zero by 2050, and through next year’s COP26 summit we will urge countries and companies around the world to join us in delivering net zero globally. Green and growth can go hand-in-hand. So let us meet the most enduring threat to our planet with one of the most innovative and ambitious programmes of job-creation we have known.

Words by Prime Minister Boris Johnson


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Rolls-Royce plans mini nuclear reactors by 2029

Rolls-Royce plans mini nuclear reactors by 2029

Mini nuclear reactors could be generating power in the UK by the end of the decade.

Manufacturer Rolls-Royce has told the BBC’s Today programme that it plans to install and operate factory-built power stations by 2029.

Mini nuclear reactor stations can be mass manufactured and delivered in chunks on the back of a lorry, which makes costs more predictable.

But opponents say the UK should quit nuclear power altogether.

They say the country should concentrate on cheaper renewable energy instead.

Environmentalists are divided over nuclear power, with some maintaining it is dangerous and expensive, while others say that to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 all technologies are needed.

However, the industry is confident that mini nuclear reactors can compete on price with low-cost renewables such as offshore wind.

Rolls-Royce is leading a consortium to build small modular reactors (SMRs) and install them in former nuclear sites in Cumbria or in Wales. Ultimately, the company thinks it will build between 10 and 15 of the stations in the UK. They are about 1.5 acres in size – sitting in a 10-acre space. That is a 16th of the size of a major power station such as Hinkley Point.

SMRs are so small that theoretically every town could have its own reactor – but using existing sites avoids the huge problem of how to secure them against terrorist attacks.

It is a rare positive note from the nuclear industry, which has struggled as the cost of renewables has plummeted.

In the past few years, major nuclear projects have been abandoned as Japanese companies Toshiba and Hitachi pulled out because they could not get the required funding.

And the construction of Hinkley Point in Somerset could cost £3bn more than was expected, in an echo of the row over the rail mega-project HS2.

“The trick is to have prefabricated parts where we use advanced digital welding methods and robotic assembly and then parts are shipped to site and bolted together,” said Paul Stein, the chief technology officer at Rolls-Royce.

He said the approach would dramatically reduce the cost of building nuclear power sites, which would lead to cheaper electricity.

But Paul Dorfman from University College London said: “The potential cost benefits of assembly line module construction relative to custom-build on-site construction may prove overstated.

“Production line mistakes may lead to generic defects that propagate throughout an entire fleet of reactors and are costly to fix,” he warned.

“It’s far more economic to build one 1.2 GW unit than a dozen 100 MW units.”

Rolls-Royce is hoping to overcome the cost barrier by selling SMRs abroad to achieve economies of scale.

Its critics have warned that SMRs will not be ready in substantial numbers until the mid 2030s, by which time electricity needs to be carbon-free in the UK already to meet climate change targets.

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