The pros and cons of nuclear power

Chancellor renews government push for nuclear expansion but opposition remains

Nuclear energy could receive more private investment after the government announced plans to reclassify the power source as “environmentally sustainable”.

In his first Budget as chancellor, Jeremy Hunt said that increasing the UK’s “nuclear capacity is vital to meet our net zero obligations”. The change in classification will give the sector “access to the same investment incentives as renewable energy”, and further the government’s commitment to advance the UK’s nuclear production.

Hunt confirmed the launch of Great British Nuclear, an initiative that “will bring down costs and provide opportunities” across the supply chain, with the aim that nuclear will comprise a quarter of domestic electricity production by 2050. He is also set to launch a competition for the design of small modular reactors, with funding available for “this exciting new technology”.

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The chancellor’s proposals are “more like a greatest hits compilation from the past, rather than anything new”, said Professor Adrian Bull, from the Dalton Nuclear Institute at the University of Manchester. It’s “about the fourth time” Great British Nuclear has been announced, he said, when “what we need is to see it actually come into being”.

But climate campaigners “attacked” the nuclear push, said The Guardian. The Climate Group’s chief executive Helen Clarkson described the proposals as “a missed opportunity to renew the UK’s commitment to climate leadership”. Greenpeace UK’s political campaigner Ami McCarthy described the Budget as “misguided” and said that “squandering taxpayers’ money on nuclear reactors that don’t even exist yet” was “irresponsible”.

Many experts laud nuclear energy as a reliable power source with low to zero emissions, and one that has a vital role to play in helping governments worldwide reach decarbonisation targets. But the nuclear issue is by no means clear-cut, with opponents pointing to various potential disadvantages and hazards.

1. Pro: efficient power production

Generating energy using nuclear fission requires significantly less fuel – specifically, uranium – than coal or gas power plants needed to produce the equivalent level of power. “You can fuel a nuclear reactor with tonnes of fuel, rather than thousands of tonnes of fuel,” said Oliver Morton in The Economist. And that makes nuclear a competitive energy choice.

Compared with renewables, nuclear is also a highly reliable power source. In the US, nuclear generators have typically operated at more than 90% capacity over the past decade, while wind power capacity has not topped 40%, according to US Energy Information Administration data. Nuclear also has a significantly higher capacity factor than hydroelectric power or solar.

2. Con: risk in unstable regions

The war in Ukraine has highlighted the threat nuclear power plants can pose when they are in a region that is or has become unstable. There were concerns over the safety of the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear plant, where scores of staff were being held under difficult conditions by the Russian military, until the invading forces withdrew last April.

Fighting around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine, has alarmed nuclear specialists. James M. Acton, writing for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that in the first six months of the conflict, “there were many times when a major nuclear accident – on the scale of the Fukushima disaster – may have been just one errant missile away”.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Rafeal Grossi, said that the international community was “rolling the dice” on the plant’s safety, adding: “And if we allow this to continue time after time then one day our luck will run out”.

3. Pro: low emissions

Once in operation, nuclear power plants produce very low to zero amounts of direct greenhouse gas emissions. According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), the impact on carbon emissions of using energy derived from nuclear sources instead of fossil fuels is “roughly equivalent to removing one-third of all cars from the world’s roads”.

After hydropower, nuclear power is the second largest source of low-carbon energy used to generate electricity, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports. The creation, maintenance and eventual decommissioning of a nuclear plant does contribute to carbon emissions – but the amount is minimal compared with that produced by the running of coal and oil plants.

4. Con: high costs of nuclear plants

Nuclear fission is a much more expensive method of energy production than those involving coal or gas. The cost of running and maintaining nuclear plants is high, while the bills for building the sites are vast.

The UK’s Hinkley Point C plant in Somerset was originally expected to cost £18bn when it was given the green light in 2016. But EDF, the French energy giant behind the project, said in February that the total cost of Britain’s first new nuclear plant for more than two decades could reach £32.7bn.

The standardisation of power station designs can help to reduce costs. France has adopted this approach and now derives 70% of the nation’s electricity supply from nuclear power.

5. Pro: public health

Nuclear energy has public health benefits that have already saved a vast number of lives worldwide, according to a 2013 research paper on the impact of energy sources on mortality rates. The US researchers calculated that nuclear power had prevented an average of 1.84 million deaths between 1971 and 2009 that would have been caused by air pollution resulting from burning fossil fuels.

By contrast, proponents argue, although exposure to radioactive waste can be lethal, the public’s risk of exposure is very low. The 1986 explosion at Chernobyl claimed the lives of 31 people in the immediate aftermath, but was the disastrous result of “a not very good nuclear plant being run in a terrible way”, says The Economist’s Morton.

6. Con: harmful waste

Management and disposal of radioactive waste is an ongoing issue in nuclear power production. This waste can be harmful to both humans and the environment, and must be treated and conditioned to turn it into a “safe, stable and manageable form” before being transported and stored, the IAEA explained.

According to Chemical and Engineering News correspondent Mitch Jacoby, “tens of thousands of metric tons of radioactive waste that accumulated from commercial power plants and years of national defence operations continue to age at sites around the globe”. In the US, massive quantities of solid and liquid waste are stored in temporary containers – and while “corrosion experts are doing their part” to protect people from potential harm caused by the hazardous waste, “the stockpile keeps growing”, warns Jacoby.

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