Nuclear energy can help make UK electricity green by 2035
- Oct 13, 2021 1:42 pm GMT
The government suspects that the British public – tired of petrol station queues and dreading winter gas bills – will like the idea of moving away from fossil fuels. But the nature of this energy crisis, stoked by a late summer lull in wind power generation, high wholesale gas prices and Britain’s meagre prospects for storing energy, demands a careful response.
And what energy technology offers low-carbon credentials and a reliable base supply? The
Only three years ago,
It was recently revealed that there are ongoing discussions between the government and American partners about US nuclear engineering firm Westinghouse building a new nuclear power plant on the island of Anglesea in north
These are, in essence, scaled-down versions of traditional power plants that will generate 470 megawatts of electricity compared with the 1,000 megawatts from their larger equivalents. Importantly, with these new designs, true factory-based manufacture becomes possible. The factories produce modules for rapid assembly on-site.
There are likely to be benefits for British businesses in the government’s approach. But how would a new generation of nuclear plants help keep the lights on while cutting emissions from the energy sector?
The nuclear option
The reactors in nuclear power stations convert the heat generated by splitting atoms (a process known as nuclear fission) to electricity, and can usually run at maximum power for months, whatever the weather. This process doesn’t emit greenhouse gases – although there are likely to be emissions during the construction of the plant itself. The vapour that rises from the iconic cooling towers of a nuclear power plant is water, not carbon dioxide.
Large nuclear power stations have huge turbine generators spinning at high speed. These hold their speed in the face of small national fluctuations, providing stability to the grid. A constant base supply of nuclear power could continue to meet demand when renewable generation falters because the wind isn’t blowing and the Sun isn’t shining.
There are other ways nuclear energy can aid decarbonisation. Heat generated in nuclear reactors might be pumped into the central heating systems of homes and other buildings, replacing fossil gas boilers. Nuclear energy could even go towards producing hydrogen fuel – a form of stored energy with potential benefits in heating and transport. And because nuclear fuel like uranium is what’s called energy-dense, even relatively small amounts can offer an ample supply. The
There remain concerns about the cost and safety of nuclear power. But these should now be placed in the context of climate change. Fossil fuels in power generation must end, and the stable and continuous operation of nuclear power plants is a useful complement to the varying output of renewable sources such as wind and solar. This appears to be the government’s logic, favouring a boost to both nuclear and renewables investment.
Nuclear technology is back in the government’s sights, but this time it will involve more British money and technology. Talk of a green future has been joined with voices on the right clamouring for a new sense of national self-reliance, free from the vicissitudes of global fossil-fuel supply.
Despite such realities, and the many difficulties encountered along the way, the
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