Nuclear Debate: The UK Standpoint

25 July 2011 (Last Updated July 15th, 2020 23:17)

Safety concerns have pushed some countries to turn their back on nuclear, but does the UK see a future without reactors? Sarah Blackman speaks to industry experts to find out how important nuclear is to a country committed to renewable power.

Nuclear Debate: The UK Standpoint

With a quarter of the UK’s generating capacity set to shut down over the next ten years, the hottest topic among the power sector today is which energy resources will fill the inevitable supply gap.

Industry experts, government leaders and global manufacturers have had their say at recent conferences such as the UK Energy Summit on what they believe are the most efficient means of producing electricity from 2020, and it seems nuclear is a firm contender.

In the last few months, the nuclear crisis in Japan led to safety concerns over this electrical resource, causing Germany, Switzerland and Italy to scrap plans for new reactors. The UK, which relies on nuclear for 18% of its energy supply, however, has not followed suit.

Safety first approach to energy

In March this year, the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan which hit the Fukushima nuclear plant, plunging the country into darkness and prompting global radioactive fallout in its wake, had a major physiological impact on some countries who now believe nuclear is no longer safe or secure.

“In the last few months, the nuclear crisis in Japan led to safety concerns over this electrical resource.”

But, the UK hasn’t reacted so drastically, and just three weeks after Germany announced it would close all of its reactors by 2022, the UK proposed plans for the next generation of nuclear plants.

Nuclear engineer and fellow of the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering Dame Sue Ion explains the reason for the country’s loyalty. “Our own regulator – the Office of Nuclear Regulation – has obviously done a comprehensive review and wouldn’t let you operate unless things were safe. It has already concluded that there is no reason why the UK shouldn’t continue to operate the existing power stations and move to build new nuclear stations.

“Fukushima was a very special event and even though there was a lot of media focus on it, the actual amount of radiation emitted is not going to have any long-term consequences on anybody. The problem is that a lot of people are worried about radiation generally and, as an industry and various governments, we have failed to put this into perspective,” Ion adds.

Power Plus Communications UK country manager David Pitcher agrees that, in general, there is evidence to suggest nuclear power is relatively safe, but believes Germany’s decision to disconnect from this source of electricity was the right one.

He said, “The decisions taken by other countries will be driven by their own specific needs and it seems clear that nuclear will continue to be an important energy source for some countries. There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to configuring the energy mix in different countries.”

Sustainability of nuclear power

Though there are firm plans in place to build eight new nuclear power plants by 2025, security of supply will be threatened by the closure of old ones over the next decade.

By 2016 two of the remaining Magnox and two of the seven AGR nuclear stations will be closed. By 2023 there may only be two stations operating; Sizewell B, the UK’s newest nuclear power station; and Hinkley Point, if EDF Energy and Centrica meet their 2018 build deadline.

Currently, nuclear makes up 18% of the UK’s energy supply but, according to Nuclear Industry Association chief executive Keith Parker, who spoke at 2010’s Westminster energy forum, this figure could be reduced to around 3% over the next 10 to 15 years.

“There are firm plans in place to build eight new nuclear power plants by 2025.”

In the immediate future, Centrica CEO Sam Laidlaw believes the short fall of switching off coal fire and nuclear plants could be made up by gas fire generation.

“We are not facing an imminent capacity crisis, but reserve markets will shrink over time. On balance, this will increase demand from other sources of power generation, particularly gas,” he said in his keynote speech at the UK Energy Summit, held in June.

“Gas already accounts for around 40% of the nation’s electricity generation, with additional gas capacity currently being held in standby mode,” Laidlaw added.

But, Ion believes that if the UK wants to see a low carbon future by 2050, gas is not the way forward. “It certainly improves the situation compared with coal but we couldn’t possibly meet 80% reduction in greenhouse gases and use gas as a means to create electricity.

“I also think, from a sustainability standpoint, it’s outrageous to burn gas to produce electricity. Oil and gas are valuable and needed for many more things,” says Ion.

The use of renewables to create low carbon electricity, both in the long-term and the short-term to keep the lights on, is, however, becoming increasingly attractive.

Pitcher says, “Smart grid projects such as MoMa in Mahhneim, Germany and Vorarlberg in Austria are proving the concept of being able to ‘balance’ the grid in real time when renewable sources such as solar and wind are not available, and there are several UK-based low carbon network projects in progress that will support this capability once the first raft of trials is completed in late 2012.

“At this point in time, it is sensible for us to focus on renewables rather than coal and gas generation, due to security of supply and meeting commitments on the low carbon economy,” adds Pitcher.

Affordability of renewable energy supplies

Although renewable power is proving to be popular among governments hoping to reverse the effects of climate change, it can be extremely expensive in comparison to other energy sources.

The UK, along with many other countries, has agreed to subsidise renewable energy projects and, according to Hugh Sharman, principal at Incoteco, subsidies for these developments have already reached £1 billion pounds a year.

“This figure is set to rise to £7 billion per year by 2020 – enough to build seven nuclear power stations,” Sharman told delegates at the UK Energy Summit.

“The UK, along with many other countries, has agreed to subsidise renewable energy projects.”

He argues that since Germany scrapped plans for nuclear power, and commissioned 18GW of photovoltaic panels, it has suffered negative consequences.

“France has become a major net power exporter to Germany, but on a sunny day, France becomes an electricity importer from Germany.

“So, peak PV output by Germany electricity trades at 4 to 6 cents per kw/hour, but the PV component is costing German consumers anything up to 10 times for this – great for France but awful for the German consumer.”

Carbon price floor

The UK Department of Energy and Climate Change made it clear there will no subsidies for nuclear power, and has introduced a carbon price floor to penalise carbon emitting technologies.

But, Tom Burke, founding director of 3G argued at the Westminster energy forum in October 2010 said the floor price is essentially a subsidy. “A floor price for carbon is a tax on British businesses and British consumers in order to generate, what in this case will be a very hefty 350 million a year windfall profit for EDF on the basis of their existing nuclear stations, let alone what they might do otherwise.”

Ion strongly disagrees with Burke’s remarks however. “The carbon floor price is a fair technology neutral instrument i.e. it isn’t specific to one technology or another, it just addresses whether you emit carbon or not. If you don’t then you benefit; if you do you have to pay.”

It seems in the immediate future the UK will need to look towards renewable energy sources to generate electricity, as coal and nuclear plants shut down. In the long-term we need clean, affordable and non fossil energy, otherwise says Sharman, “Is there any alternative to an all electric future powered primarily by nuclear? Apparently not.”