Do we really need nuclear power?

Ieuan Williams

22 May 2019

Since joining the NIA I’ve had the privilege of attending meetings of FORATOM’s General Assembly.

At my first gathering, a number of European colleagues repeatedly mentioned something that aired on Dutch TV which had made a big impact to the public’s opinion on nuclear.

After a bit of digging I found the clip for myself, from Zondag met Lubach, hosted by Dutch comedian and satirist, Arjen Lubach. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, the format is similar to that of various American TV chat show monologues. Except this was all about nuclear energy, and as this is the Netherlands, it was, of course, Kernenergie.

Currently the Netherlands’ only nuclear plant, Borssele, with its 515MW PWR, supplies around 3% of Dutch electricity.

Slightly surprisingly, the whole piece on Kernenergie went on to be highly positive, with the host saying the country should consider building 10 more like it to avoid relying on coal and gas, allowing it to meet its climate change targets unhindered.

While talking about the taboo that exists around nuclear power, Lubach showed a clip from a Greenpeace spokesperson, who said nuclear power “has no CO2 emissions… so it doesn’t contribute to global warming, but there are other disadvantages”. His reaction to this is simple, you can’t state a huge advantage, and then say, “but it gets worse!”

So, when a couple of weeks ago I began reading through the Committee on Climate Change’s latest report – and associated mountain of documentation – I started to get déjà vu.

For dramatic effect, below is a slightly long-winded list of quotes from the documents:

  • “Nuclear is a mature technology”
  • Without our current fleet of nuclear reactors, the UK’s “low carbon electricity generation would have been just 33% in 2017”
  • “Neighbouring European countries have achieved sustained build outs of large power plant fleets, such as France’s 5 GW/year rollout of nuclear power in the 1980s”
  • “Gas CCS has some residual emissions, which renewables and nuclear do not”
  • “Power sector decarbonisation does not rely on variable renewables alone, but a portfolio of technologies including nuclear power”
  • “Deployment of further nuclear power or alternative renewable technologies could also reduce emissions further”

As you can see, the report praises nuclear, it’s reliable, has no carbon emissions, can be successfully rolled out on a mass scale, and (crucially) according to the report, in 2050 will be cheaper than gas with CCS. On the face of it, nuclear should have this one in the bag.

Alas, when it came to the committee demonstrating what our electricity mix could look like in 2050, nuclear was banished to a backseat role, with CCS taking a 30% share of generation.

What went wrong for nuclear?

How did it end up being a less-preferred option to a technology which is yet to be proven on a mass scale?

It gets worse, the report assumes CCS will be operating at a capture rate of 95%, to a cost of £79/MWh, and by 2050 be able to capture 176Mt of CO2 a year. None of these things have even come close to being accomplished on the scale required. Ever. In 2017 the UK captured zero carbon.

This, plus a wild expectation that all the necessary infrastructure will be built and ready in 11 years from now.

Imagine betting your house on a horse that hasn’t even been born yet? Then imagine betting the world on it.