Carbon cutters: can nuclear work alongside renewables?

Despite nuclear power’s shaky reputation, it could play an important role, alongside renewables, in decarbonising energy systems. Will its reputation hold it back or do we need nuclear?

Nuclear and renewables, while both key parts of the effort towards decarbonisation, are often seen as being at cross purposes, predominantly due to ideological disagreements and issues over nuclear waste. But a partnership between the two would go much further towards meeting emission reduction goals, argued Energy for Humanity (EfH) co-founder and executive director Kirsty Gogan in her presentation ‘Why We Need Nuclear Power’ at the 4th World Nuclear New Build Congress in London. 

EfH is an NGO set up in 2014 with the aim of reducing emissions from power generation and building energy infrastructure for the 1.2 billion people globally that live without access to electricity.

“Traditional environmental techniques are not working, or at least not fast enough,” Gogan said. As such, despite nuclear’s status as the “poster child for taboo power sources”, it must be reconsidered.

New environmentalism

Gogan advocated ‘new environmentalism’, a technology-focused approach that steps away from specific ideologies and instead looks for a broader strategy for tackling climate change and its negative effects.

“We know that nuclear energy is part of the clean electricity mix,” said Gogan. “It’s extremely low-carbon; it’s similar to wind in terms of its whole lifecycle carbon emissions. We also know that among policy experts there’s actually a widely spread opinion that tackling [environmental] challenges would be much, much easier if we could quickly and cheaply build a lot of nuclear plants.”

The key difference between nuclear technology and renewables is public opinion. Over the last 20 years, the popularity of renewables has skyrocketed among the general public thanks to awareness campaigns, policy decisions and technological advances. Meanwhile, studies have shown that “nuclear energy is portrayed largely as a dinosaur, a thing of the past, linked with dirty polluting fuels like coal and oil,” according to Gogan.

"In the UK, only around 40% of people fully support the use of nuclear power. However, 75% support a mix of nuclear and renewables together."

This is unhelpful for global progress on climate change, as it makes nuclear a less attractive energy source despite its small footprint. While this does not necessarily mean nuclear should be a long-term goal, Gogan said, we should embrace all potential technologies that can act as a means to an end.

Will there be more collaboration?

In the UK, only around 40% of people fully support the use of nuclear power. However, 75% support a mix of nuclear and renewables together. This support for a clean energy mix that uses nuclear can be seen in organisations as well.

Gogan highlighted how despite recent figures showing the extent to which offshore wind power is cheaper in the UK, wind experts still suggested that nuclear had an important role to play. She referred to the wind energy trade body Renewable UK’s Emma Pinchbeck, who told the BBC: "We still think nuclear can be part of the mix - but our industry has shown how to drive costs down, and now they need to do the same."

Not everyone will be convinced by such arguments, and nuclear generation still has significant downsides. As well as the long-term problem of radioactive waste, nuclear plants are slow to increase or decrease power output, and as such are poorly suited to offering the flexible capacity needed to support intermittent renewables such as wind or solar. They are best used to provide reliable baseload power, and generating virtually non-stop might be the only way to recover the expense of the nuclear new build process.

Nevertheless, there is logic in Gogan’s argument and a focus on overall reduction of emissions regardless of taboo technologies.

“If you believe that climate or air pollution, poverty or destruction of nature are the greatest risks to human health, and to environmental and public wellbeing, then the question you need to be asking is how do we tackle those risks in the fastest, most feasible and most cost-effective way possible,” said Gogan. “And when you start from that point it just makes no sense to limit the technologies at our disposal based on ideological opposition to some tools.”