Mark Hillsdon reports on how a new generation of modular reactors, the worsening climate crisis and Russian’s invasion have forced a rethink on the controversial technology
Even before Russian shells landed perilously close to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe, the role of nuclear in the transition from fossil fuels was complicated. For many, memories of the nuclear disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima are still fresh, yet at the same time, with Russian gas and oil no longer flowing freely to the West, others argue that nuclear is now more important than ever.
Thirty-three countries operate nuclear reactors, among them Russia, China and the United States, with France the largest player in Europe, which derived 25% of its electricity needs from nuclear in 2020.
Finland has recently started up its first new reactor in over 40 years, while Poland is among a clutch of European states waiting to kick-start a nuclear industry. In Britain, the existing fleet of nuclear power stations are at the end of their lives. By the end of the year, just Sizewell B will be left, until Hinckley C comes online at the end the decade.
But Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to set out ambitious new targets to increase nuclear capacity in the forthcoming energy supply strategy. Johnson reportedly told industry leaders he wanted to deliver new power plants "at warp speed".
It's not renewables that replace nuclear, it ends up being fossil fuels
But many countries have also eschewed nuclear, among them Austria, Italy, Spain, Belgium and Germany, which vowed to close down its nuclear fleet by the end of 2022 after Fukushima. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced some to rethink. But while German Chancellor Olaf Scholz floated the idea of extending the lives of the country’s last three nuclear plants as it scrambles to replace its heavy dependence on Russian fossil fuels, it is thought that it is more likely to restart some of its coal plants, while looking to import liquified natural gas from the United States.
Tom Greatrex, chief executive of the UK’s Nuclear Industry Association, argues that the decline in nuclear’s share of global electricity generation, from a peak of 17.5% in 1996, to 10.1 % in 2020, will harm efforts to keep global warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius. “It's not renewables that replace nuclear, it ends up being fossil fuels,” he says.
Not only is nuclear energy carbon-free, he says, but it is also predictable, making it perfect for plugging the gap left by the intermittency of wind and solar, and providing the constant baseload that the grid needs.
This is why bodies such as the International Energy Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have all included nuclear in their models and projections for a net-zero future, he explains. And in uncertain times, nuclear has a clear role to play in ensuring energy security and independence, too.
“The best time to build a nuclear power station was 10 years ago,” Greatrex continues. “The second-best time is now.” We need clean energy long into the future, he adds: “It’s not as if decarbonisation stops in 2030.”
But building nuclear power stations isn’t cheap. Hinckley C has gone hugely over budget, as has Olkiluoto in Finland. And while they may generate power for decades afterwards – nearly 2.5 times longer than solar and wind plants, according to Karan Satwani, an energy analyst at Rystad Energy ‒ they take on average seven years to build. And it is this time lag, argue critics, that make them redundant when it comes to tackling the climate emergency.
Every penny that is spent on new nuclear makes the climate crisis worse
“Climate effectiveness means fast and cheap,” says, Mycle Schneider, an anti-nuclear activist who co-ordinates the annual World Nuclear Industry Status Report … (but) nuclear power is slow and expensive. … By the time this new generation of nuclear plants come online, it will be too late” to help meet 2030 targets to avoid catastrophic global warming.
“Every penny that is spent on new nuclear makes the climate crisis worse,” says Schneider. The money would be better invested in renewables, the most expensive of which, offshore wind, is still about a third of the cost of nuclear power. They are also much quicker to deploy.
Critics also point to the fact that nuclear energy may be carbon-free, but the extraction, processing and transportation of uranium produces emissions, as does building and dismantling plants, and storing waste. Decommissioning nuclear plants, and the subsequent clean up, also considerably adds to their overall costs.
While nuclear receives scant mention in the European Commission’s REPowerEU plan to turn off the tap on Russian fossil fuel imports, nuclear, along with natural gas, have been included in the new European Union taxonomy framework, which aims to increase transparency in financial markets, making it easy for private sector investors to know their money is going to sustainable projects.
Rystad’s Satwani says the taxonomy is important, because without new investment to replace and extend the lifetime of Europe’s existing power reactors, the EU will gradually lose a large share, perhaps half, of its nuclear power generation capacity by 2050.
As a European Commission spokesperson said in an interview a day before the Russian invasion: “There is a role for natural gas and nuclear as a means to facilitate the transition towards a predominately renewable-based future.
Renewables are cheaper, carbon-free and home-grown, but we also need a stable source – nuclear
“We need more renewables,” he says. “They are cheaper, carbon-free and home-grown. (But) we also need a stable source – nuclear – and, during the transition, gas.”
Thierry Breton, the EU’s internal markets commissioner, has talked about the need to invest 550 billion euros in new nuclear if Europe is to be net zero by 2050 ‒ money that could be used not just to build new reactors, but reboot existing ones, too.
Some see the answer in a new breed of small modular reactors (SMRs), which are quicker and cheaper to build, and can even be housed inside existing coal-powered plants. In November, Rolls-Royce announced that it and two partners, BNF Resources and Exelon Generation, would invest 195 million pounds over the next three years, helped by 210 million pounds in UK Research and Innovation funding, to deliver “a decarbonisation solution that will be available to the UK grid in the early 2030s”.
Each SMR power plant will have the capacity to generate 470 megawatts (MW), equal to 150 onshore wind turbines, and provide baseload generation for 60 years, Rolls-Royce said.
In the United States, TerraPower, a startup co-founded by Bill Gates to revolutionise designs for nuclear reactors, is developing its first demonstration nuclear power plant in Wyoming. The plant, which will cost $4 billion, with half of the money coming from the U.S. government, will be the first to use an advanced nuclear design called Natrium, which uses liquid sodium as a cooling agent instead of water. Sodium has a higher boiling point and can absorb more heat than water, making the plant safer, claim designers.
Greenpeace has called this new breed of reactor a diversion from urgent climate action, again arguing the money would be better spent on renewables. But the new reactors are said to be safer, too, and produce less highly radioactive waste, two influential factors when it comes to the public perception of nuclear.
There is an estimated 250,000 tonnes of spent fuel worldwide
High-level nuclear waste can remain active for tens of thousands of years and, according to the World Nuclear Association, there is an estimated 250,000 tonnes of spent fuel worldwide, all currently stored above ground, often in cooling pools. Some is the legacy of early atomic development, much of it military, while high-level liquid waste, often the result of reprocessing, goes through a process of vitrification, when it is mixed with silica, to form a block of black glass, and then encased in concrete.
Nuclear accidents in the past have led to the establishment of a global structure that closely monitors the entire cycle of nuclear power generation, explains Satwani of Rystad Energy, and “deep geological disposal is widely agreed to be the best solution for the final disposal of the most radioactive waste produced”.
Risks also remain in transporting the waste, and as yet none of these vast subterranean vaults, often hundreds of metres under the ground, have been opened, with few communities keen to have them on their doorsteps, no matter how deep the spent fuel is buried.
But as the Russian strike near Zaporizhzhia reminded the world, the greatest risk of all is of a missile directly hitting one of Ukraine’s 15 nuclear power reactors, which generate half of its energy needs. Were that to happen, then the brighter future for nuclear would grow very dark indeed.
Mark Hillsdon is a Manchester-based freelance writer who writes on business and sustainability for The Ethical Corporation, The Guardian, and a range of nature-based titles including CountryFile and BBC Wildlife.
This article is part of The Ethical Corporation’s March 2022 Energy Transition briefing: See also:
Zaporizhzhia Fukushima nuclear power Hinckley C climate transition Nuclear Industry Association REPowerEU small modular reactors SMRs Rolls-Royce