Can nuclear help the UK deliver ‘net zero’?

Posted on 8 Jul 2019 by Maddy White

Nuclear power is a divisive topic, some leaders want to scrap nuclear projects and focus on renewables, and others want to forge on with building large power plants while also developing smaller reactors. But, will either option help Britain hit ‘net zero’ by 2050?

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) advises a net zero greenhouse gas emissions target by 2050, replacing the previous aim of an 80% emissions reduction from 1990 levels by 2050.

The capacity of offshore windfarms nearly doubled over 2018. Among the new offshore wind farms was the Walney Extension, the largest offshore wind farm in the world - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Renewable energy is growing – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

While the CCC acknowledges that current legislation and infrastructure is not advanced enough for Britain to achieve this ambitious (and perhaps unrealistic) goal, it does claim if action was taken now, it could.

To make net zero a reality for businesses, Britain should build new nuclear power stations and scale up carbon capture technology and infrastructure, says the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in a letter to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).

“To deliver the government’s admirable net zero policy by 2050, it is mission critical that business, politicians and the public work together to devise and make the necessary changes,” said Rain Newton-Smith, CBI Chief Economist.

“Firms want to see a whole host of stable, long-term policies enacted – from building new nuclear power stations to scaling-up carbon capture and storage technology and infrastructure – that send markets a robust signal: the UK is open for green business, and is a world leader in tackling climate change,” she added.

The letter says the UK should progress large-scale nuclear projects and support innovative nuclear technologies. It recommends a clear mix of incentives for consumers and businesses to buy electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles, and that the tax and business rates system needs to be rationalised to ensure green energy is encouraged and not penalised.

A new type of nuclear

The UK’s green energy producing future hinges around a tough decision; focus on nuclear, focus on renewables or attempt to develop both in harmony. Last year nuclear energy supplied 19% of UK electricity, with gas accounting for 39.4% and renewable energy supplying a record 33%, according to Carbon Brief.

With the collapse of Hitachi and Toshiba’s major nuclear plant projects; Wylfa Newydd in Wales and Moorside in Cumbria, the pressure for nuclear to deliver is high. Additionally, Hinkley C the nuclear power plant in Somerset is behind schedule, and billions over budget.

An artist's impressions of a SMR - image courtesy of Rolls-Royce.
SMRs could be rolled out to many locations – image courtesy of Rolls-Royce.

Some of the biggest challenges nuclear power plants face are high costs, extensive regulatory processes and the inflexibility that comes with large-scale nuclear reactors and radioactive material. And with renewable energy sources hitting an all-time high (and low) in terms of energy delivery and cost, it begs the question do we still need nuclear? But, nuclear power offers steady low carbon energy around the clock, something that solar or wind energy can’t currently provide.

Alongside small modular reactors, there are micro nuclear reactors (MNRs). MNR technology is in its infancy but could have the potential to provide big benefits to the UK, in energy supply and cost, speed of deployment as well as potential economic and commercial opportunity, a report from BEIS found.

One of the key differences between small modular reactors and micro nuclear reactors is that an MNR can produce around 30MW in electrical output, whereas SMRs have a capacity in the range 30-300MW, planned new build large reactors (LR) have a capacity in the range of 1100- 1700MW.

MNRs need a lower initial capital investment then SMRs, less maintenance and can be used in locations unable to accommodate more traditional larger reactors. The report explains that an advantage of MNRs is their simplicity that allows them to be constructed relatively easily. However, much more R&D work needs to be done to prove their viability.