Opinion: Why nuclear power isn’t part of the solution to the global climate change crisis

Nuclear power cannot compete with the technological, economic, safety and security advantages of the renewable evolution, says Honorary Senior Research Associate, Dr Paul Dorfman (UCL Energy Institute).

Over the past few weeks, the intensity and scale of the floods from slow-moving storms have broken records, and climate models are running hot.

This has prompted some to champion nuclear power as a source of lower-carbon electricity. But this newfound USPáneeds to be considered within the bigger picture because UK coastal nuclear power stations will be one of the first, and most significant, casualties to ramping climate impact. Put simply, nuclear is quite literally on the front-line of climate change - and not in a good way.

All recent scientific data points to ramping sea-levels, faster, harder, more destructive storms and storm surges - inevitably bringing into question the operational safety, security and viability of UK coastal nuclear infrastructure.

Not normally given to exaggeration, the Institute of Mechanical Engineers says we may have to ’up sticks’, relocate or abandon nuclear sites. This will cost. Trying to defend coastal nuclear means significantly increased expense for nuclear operation, waste management, and the 100-year-plus programme to decontaminate the UK’s 17 old nuclear reactors.

For nuclear to be practical, reactors have to be built economically, efficiently and on time. But practical experience says otherwise. EDF’s flagship EPR reactor is vastly over-cost and over-time at the two sites where it’s being built, at Olkiluoto in Finland and Flamanville in France.

Problems include poor concrete, bad welding and a faulty reactor pressure vessel - the main safety component. Things were supposed to have gone better in China, until last month’s nuclear fuel debacle demonstrated their inadequate safety oversight.

As for nuclear fusion, for the last 60 years proponents have said the technology will be ready in 20 years’ time - so perhaps this is an experiment to prove that time doesn’t exist in modern nuclear physics.

The reality is nuclear is a high-risk option. And this plays out in real time. Worldwide, nuclear is in stark decline and renewables are rising. The obvious explanation is the ramping costs of the former and the plummeting costs of the latter. So, not all lower carbon options are equal, benign or effective - and there are choices to be made.

Happily, big finance is at a tipping point as key global debt and equity investors pour record capital into renewables. With wind and solar power capacity growing at a record rate, the International Energy Agency predicts that renewables will supply 90 per cent of global electric power by 2050.

In Europe, renewables overtook fossil fuels to become the EU’s main source of electricity for the first time in 2020. Perhaps because it’s 50 per cent cheaper to generate electricity from renewables compared with fossil fuel-powered plants, the EU will increase renewables share in the total energy mix to 40 per cent by 2030.

OK, running an integrated renewable energy system will mean not just more wind and solar, but also a power network that ensures a balance of supply and demand at all times.

So it’s reassuring that power supply in nuclear-free Germany, the strongest economy in Europe, is one of the most reliable in the world, with government and grid operators confident that it will stay this way. In its last session before the summer recess, the German parliament brought forward the deadline for achieving climate neutrality by five years to 2045.

Here in Scotland, BP plans to invest ú10 billion to make Aberdeen a global hub for offshore wind. Meanwhile Shell and Scottish Power are developing the world’s first large-scale floating offshore windfarms in the north-east of Scotland. And a very recent report by Imperial University says a massive expansion of offshore wind to 108 gigawatt will drive new power in the UK.

There are no resounding new revelations about the vulnerability of nuclear power to natural disasters, human or engineering faults, accidental or deliberate harm. Accidents are, by nature, accidental, and we’ve learned the cost of ignoring this common-sense axiom.

The fact is, the UK’s coastal nuclear power stations are vulnerable to sea-level rise, storm surges and flooding of reactor and spent fuel stores - and soon. This means that nuclear flood risk based on ’all case scenarios’ must be published and regularly updated as climate science evolves, including costings and a range of contingency plans for the swift onset of climate-driven severe weather.

In other words, action to address the impact of climate change on nuclear energy should be a key part of the United Nation’s Cop26 climate summit.

It’s time to think constructively. We need to secure clean, safe, affordable, sustainable, low-carbon energy to power industry, transport, homes and businesses.

Our energy transition will involve the expansion of renewable energy in all sectors, rapid growth and modernisation of the electricity grid, energy conservation and efficiency, rapidly evolving storage technology, market innovations from supply to service provision, and transport restructure.

Nuclear sucks funds and vital political attention from this imperative zero-carbon investment. It displaces renewables on the grid and diverts essential research. The ramping costs of new nuclear compromises better, flexible, safe, productive, cost-effective and affordable technologies - and comes at a time when the development of renewable, sustainable and affordable low-carbon energy is a growing economic sector with a huge potential for jobs.

In bidding a long goodbye to fossil fuels, we’re also saying farewell to nuclear, that quintessentially mid-20th century technology - and not before time. Nuclear just can’t compete with the technological, economic, safety and security advantages of the renewable evolution.

Nuclear is an out-dated technology - a tired non-starter in the 21st century. We can do better.

This article first appeared in The Scotsman on 2nd August 2021.


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