Both the current UK government and the likely next government want to embrace nuclear power

Rishi Sunak has commissioned an energy review that will focus on “carbon capture and storage, small modular reactors and the like”. Keir Starmer’s proposed “Great British Energy” would invest in nuclear energy alongside wind, solar, tidal and other emerging technologies. There’s nothing new about nuclear power and if it was the solution to all our problems – and on the face of it, it should be – the world would have already fully embraced nuclear, risks and all. So why haven’t we?

First of all, fossil fuels are as close to a panacea as it gets in the energy world: there’s a reason that hydrocarbons have dominated the energy mix. They’re cheap, easy to find, efficient and the power that we get from them can be turned up or down as necessary. In the UK, if it wasn’t for pollution and emissions, we’d be happily burning all the coal we could find as quickly as possible and, based on current reserves, we would have plenty left. However, as we know, burning fossil fuels is very much not consequence free and we’re only just starting to get serious about those consequences and no amount of “clean” coal, unleaded fuel, catalytic converters, wonderful though they are, can make up for this.

Secondly, nuclear power is scary: the world’s first public demonstrations of nuclear power were at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Roughly once a decade since then, the world has provided us with reminders of just how frightening nuclear power can be: the Cuban Missile Crisis, Three Mile Island, Exercise Able Archer, Chernobyl, Fukushima and Zaporizhzhia are all examples from the past 60 years where the perils of a nuclear world have been brought home to us. 

But they’re also good examples of how what appears to be scary might, in fact, have been used to promote the benefits of nuclear power. After all, the Cuban Missile Crisis was averted for lots of reasons but one of them was a fear, especially the Russian side, of a nuclear exchange that no one would win. Furthermore, the various crises at nuclear power plants have led, in their own way, to major improvements in systems and systems safety that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the Fukushima crisis in 2011, which was initially rated as serious as Chernobyl, has had much lower impacts (but no less serious in their own way) than the earlier disaster partly because the Japanese reactors were encased in concrete containment vessels where there was no containment at Chernobyl. In fact, the safety record of the nuclear power sector is remarkable given how many nuclear power stations there are but it also reflects the truth that the engineers building nuclear power stations have always been incredibly respectful, and with good reason, both of the power that they were handling and its source.

It’s also true that the rise of more sophisticated terrorist organisations made the public and thereby politicians wary of the nuclear industry especially from 9/11 onwards. If terrorists can fly two large aeroplanes into the heart of the biggest financial centre in the world then surely an isolated power station would be a much easier target. That’s true but for the fact that reactors themselves – as they were at Fukushima – are heavily protected and largely invulnerable to this sort of attack. At Zaporizhzhia in Ukraine during the current conflict, the issue is less about the impact on the reactors themselves from Russian shelling but the impact on waste storage facilities and power supplies to cooling and safety systems. Even then, had the worst-case scenario come to pass with the reactors, the containment structures of VVER-1000 plants are, unlike their Fukushima counterparts, leak-tight. This is not to say that fighting around Zaporizhzhia is a good idea or risk-free; it’s more that the risks are less obvious than they might seem. To some extent, then, nuclear power is a lot safer than it might appear but the plants themselves and their associated infrastructure are only part of the puzzle.

The third part of that puzzle is nuclear’s spectacular efficiency as a fuel source. As the Zaporizhzhia reactors were being switched off, they still needed to be continuously cooled with water from the Dnieper to ensure safe shutdown because they produce so much heat. Uranium-filled fuel rods, the source of nuclear fission within the reactor, are immersed in water for around 10 years after they are used before they reach a temperature at which they can be safely handled. It’s this efficiency that makes nuclear power an unusual part of the energy mix as, unlike gas or coal, you can’t easily turn the output up or down. Nuclear energy just is.

This means that in a system that requires flexibility, and remembering that UK electricity demand can swing between 40 GWs and 20 GWs in just one day, nuclear power is unsuited to modern demands. As the Irishman said, if you were trying to fit nuclear power into the UK energy system, you wouldn’t start from here. France, by contrast, dealt with its particular problem of having almost no fossil fuels of its own by creating a system that is 75% nuclear and relies on fossil fuels, renewables and the ability to export power to create the flexibility that its nuclear-based system needs. No wonder then that the UK often imports very, very cheap energy from France.

France pays a price for its energy security, however. President Macron has announced plans to build 6 new reactors by 2050 – and they’re much needed to replace the country’s ageing fleet of power stations – but he was warned very publicly just two months ago that he needs to have a credible programme to deal with the fourth issue: nuclear waste and both from the new planned plants and from the new ones. Right now, France’s nuclear waste facilities are close to over-flowing. In reality, if you’re worried about reactor safety, you should really be a lot more worried about nuclear waste. The full decommissioning process for a nuclear plant takes between 20 and 30 years. By contrast, a North Sea oil platform and its associated subsea systems can be decommissioned in a matter of months. Furthermore, those small, modular nuclear power stations on which the Tory position relies? According to research published last year by Stanford University and the University of British Columbia, they produce more waste than conventional nuclear power plants.

Part of the problem with waste is that, even as we approach the 70th anniversary of the first nuclear power stations, there is still no global consensus on how best to handle high level nuclear waste because the timeframes are so immense. What seems like an obvious solution today – for example, storing waste in deep geological repositories hundreds of metres below the ground – may end up being a total disaster in 500 or even 5,000 years’ time. What do those timescales mean? It means asking Henry VIII, King of England in 1523, to make decisions about the country we live in today. Unsurprisingly we have ended up with a halfway house: everyone agrees that toxic waste can be treated and converted into less dangerous (but still very dangerous) forms; everyone also agrees that it’s probably best if it’s stored underground but no one can yet agree what underground means and what the risks will be over the centuries to come. And if the timescales are immense, then so are the costs: the Sellafield facility in Cumbria is being decommissioned with a current cost estimate of £121 billion which does not included the placing of the waste from the site into a geological disposal facility, the location and timing of which are to be determined, which will cost another £53 billion.

At least Henry VIII would not have had to deal with our fifth hurdle: the British planning system and an island cluttered with around 65 million people and it’s this, perhaps above all, that makes new nuclear projects vanishingly unlikely. I don’t want to live next to a nuclear power station of any size and I doubt many Reaction subscribers would either but because we live in an age of Nimbyism, it’s doubtful that any of us will be asked to do so anyway. Even if we are, and if the project is approved, investment is found and if construction starts, you can look forward to the project, counting from today, delivering power in roughly 2035 and that’s being very optimistic.

So where does this leave us? Regular readers of this column won’t be surprised to learn that the solution is to be found in renewables and in gas. We are blessed with abundant natural resources and especially wind which we are already using very effectively. When the wind doesn’t blow, we can rely on gas from our own reservoirs and use carbon capture and storage to mitigate the impact. At the same time, with costs in the renewable sector having collapsed, the UK can build even more offshore wind farms, invest in battery storage technology, accelerate hydrogen production, investigate tidal and biomass potential and, for once, have a national conversation about how much energy we actually need. Nick Clegg was wrong when he said in 2010 that we shouldn’t build any new nuclear power stations – we could do with that capacity right now – but, over the past ten years, the UK has done so much to change its energy mix that investing in nuclear now, with all the cost, time and controversy involved, would be a significant mistake. It seems unlikely that it will take Sunak and Starmer, arch-pragmatists that they both are, very long to work this out. 

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