Nuclear energy is sold to us as the solution to all our energy crisis problems. Those who are in favour say it is a low cost, low carbon and highly reliable energy source. Those who disagree say that it is unsafe and not as green as we would like it to be.
What is nuclear energy?
Nuclear energy is produced when the binding energy at the centre of atoms is split by fission (EDF Energy). This causes heat and radiation, which is used to heat water and make it steam. The steam then drives turbines which drive generators .The generators use an electromagnetic field to convert the mechanical energy into electricity. The electricity is passed onto the national grid via transformers. The steam then needs to be cooled, using sea water so that it can be reused.
Why do we need nuclear energy?
The UK urgently needs to find replacement sources of energy for fossil fuels (coal, gas & oil) in order to reduce carbon emissions. Nuclear energy and renewables are potential options.
20% of the UK’s electricity is powered by the existing nuclear plants. By 2021, the 8 existing nuclear plants in the UK had generated 2000 TWh of electricity. That’s enough to power homes across the uK for 18.5 years (EDF Energy). Most importantly, it was low carbon electricity.
The UK Government recently announced plans to double the number of nuclear reactors in the UK. They aim to complete them by 2050 (BBC). The plans will ensure that the UK remains ‘in the lead’ of nuclear energy development.
Nuclear vs other renewables
An increase in nuclear energy is not the only solution the UK government is proposing. They also have plans to increase wind energy, potentially providing up to 50% of renewables by 2030.
RenewableUK says that onshore wind is the cheapest electricity to produce – above all other types. Onshore wind produced around 9% of the UK requirements (in 2017). Offshore wind could produce over 10% of the UK electricity requirement. The costs of offshore wind have fallen by 50% since 2015. This makes it cheaper than nuclear energy and new gas installations.
New wind farms have stalled as approvals have become more difficult and subsidies have been dropped. The government has said it will reform planning rules to enable the increased requirement.
Disadvantages of nuclear power
Lobbyists met the news that the UK was going to increase nuclear capacity with disbelief and disappointment. They think that there are a number of disadvantages to nuclear power.
The first is that nuclear power is not currently renewable or green. Nuclear energy requires uranium which is a finite resource (Forbes). There are also concerns over waste storage and the potential impact on the environment.
The UK currently has no permanent nuclear waste storage facilities, apart from Sellfield where “some of the high hazard facilities are decades old” (ONR). It has plans to bury nuclear waste for the new 8 plants in geological deposit facilities deep underground.
The second is the high cost of new nuclear reactors and decommissioning them after use. Hinckley Point C will cost an estimated £25bn-£26bn to complete (Financial Times). Decommissioning the seven UK reactors that are considered aged will cost approximately £23.5bn (The Guardian).
By contrast, to meet the 2030 goal for wind power requires a £50bn investment (The Guardian).
There is no doubt that we need more renewable and clean energy sources. Though nuclear energy is low carbon, more efficient sources are wind, geothermal & hydro power. Help by supporting campaigns for clean energy. Buy clean energy. When possible, choose to support companies that benefit clean energy projects.