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Zero Carbon for Net Zero

Tom Greatrex

18 September 2020

Earlier this year, the Institute of Mechanical Engineers published a poll that showed just 26% of young people, aged 18 to 24, know that nuclear was a zero carbon emissions source of electricity. The same figure for wind and solar was 76%. Irrefutable facts that we assume are well understood clearly are not. Wherever the responsibility for this quite alarming level of ignorance lies (and as an industry we must own at least some of it), when climate change, meeting net zero ambitions and a move away from reliance on polluting fossil fuels are high on the list of priority issues for many in the same age group, then that misunderstanding needs to be addressed.

When nuclear fuel is used to generate electricity, it emits no carbon. Nuclear power is zero carbon power. Our power stations don’t burn anything to generate electricity, so there are no carbon emissions. No greenhouse gases come from splitting the atom. Burning fossil fuels, mostly coal and gas, emits huge amounts of carbon and other pollution into the environment. Both nuclear and fossil fuel power stations have the advantage of being able to generate firm (ie not weather dependent) power, but one is zero carbon and the other is high carbon. To take a recent example of the difference that makes, when Hunterston B in the west of Scotland is producing electricity it emits zero tonnes of carbon per year. When Hunterston B was offline, Peterhead gas-fired power station in northern Scotland emitted almost two million tonnes of carbon in one year. Zero carbon nuclear was not replaced by zero carbon wind or solar, but through the high carbon activity of burning gas for electricity.

It is not just the fact of zero carbon power that is relevant. Splitting the atom releases no carbon, while producing huge amounts of energy for very little fuel input. The power stations produce a constant supply of electricity for a very long time, and new build projects will do so comfortably for at least sixty years, and in all likelihood for many years beyond that.  That makes a difference, because even after taking account of the carbon emitted in the production of the materials used and activity involved in building, running, maintaining and eventually decommissioning power stations, nuclear is less carbon intensive than clearly many realise.

The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change figures show that nuclear’s life cycle carbon output is the equivalent of just 12g of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour (kWh) of electricity. That’s the same as offshore wind (12g) and lower than concentrated solar power (27g). Gas, by contrast, is 490g/kWh. Even if, in the future, carbon capture and storage (CCS) is applied to the most efficient gas turbines, the carbon cost is 170g for every kilowatt hour of power generated – 14 times the carbon footprint of nuclear and wind, almost six times that of solar panels. Nuclear, wind and solar are zero-carbon generators, and have a small carbon footprint over their lifecycle.

None of this is news to people working in and around nuclear power. But I wager that the fact solar power is 150% more carbon intensive than nuclear wouldn’t be known by many in the population at large, let alone the climate concerned 18 – 24 year olds.

The challenge, then, is to help those that are not aware understand this reality in the context of the drive to a clean, sustainable future. Zero carbon nuclear has a huge part to play in the drive to net zero – but zero awareness will do little else than prolong our reliance on burning fossil fuels – and there is zero benefit to the planet in that.