How Renewables Can Rescue The UK From Its Nuclear Energy Crisis
Grow Talk by Sofy Robertson
In 2013, the coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats published their Long-term Nuclear Energy Strategy ,stating their belief that nuclear energy had an important role to play in delivering the long-term objective of a low-carbon energy future.
The use of the phrase ‘long-term’ here arguably needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. According to Scientific American, at our current rate of consumption, the world’s supply of uranium (the essential ‘fuel’ for nuclear power) will last around 200 years and a report submitted by a Stanford University fellow concurred, estimating that we have around 180 years of uranium left.
The ‘life’ of global uranium supplies is not the latest issue that the UK is facing in its pursuit of the Nuclear Energy Strategy. At present, around 20 per cent of the UK’s power is derived from nuclear but by the early 2030s, only one in seven of the existing nuclear power stations in the UK is planned to be in operation.
Japanese giant Hitachi is the latest to pull the plug, closing the £16 billion Wylfa Newydd plant on Anglesey in Wales, as well as another planned project in Gloucestershire. They join Toshiba who pulled out of the Moorside project in Cumbria last November. These three scrapped power stations would have produced 15 per cent of the UK’s future electricity demands between them.
Tom Greatrex, Chief Executive of the Nuclear Energy Association explained:
“The urgent need for further new nuclear capacity in the UK should not be underestimated, with all but one of the UK’s nuclear power plant due to come offline by 2030.” (Wired)
This leaves Somerset’s controversial Hinkley Point C as the only new nuclear power plant under construction. Chris Goodall, an energy expert, stated:
“Hinkley Point might be the last nuclear power station ever built in the UK.”
Hitachi’s decision was “inevitable”, according to Goodall, due to the falling cost of solar and wind power making long-term nuclear projects like Wylfa more expensive and therefore less attractive.
In Western Europe, it has become much more expensive to build and deploy large-scale nuclear power projects. Recent attempts in France and Finland have run late and gone over budget. Many believe Hinkley will suffer the same fate.
Although attempts to develop cheaper alternatives such as small modular reactors are ongoing, these remain largely in the concept stage. It is likely, therefore, that the UK will see a slow decline in the proportion of electricity derived from nuclear. This poses the risk that our country will need to resort back to ‘dirtier’ methods of electricity generation.
This does not have to be the case with renewable energies becoming cheaper and better and with wind power now the third biggest contributor to electricity supplies in the UK. Jim Watson, Director of the UK Energy Research Centre agrees, saying:
“I think renewables can do a lot more than people thought ten years ago.”
Renewables are also much quicker to deploy. Even if the Wylfa plant had gone ahead, it would have been at least a decade before it started generating power. In that same time-scale, a huge number of onshore wind turbines could be installed.
One of the reasons that the UK government has shied away from renewables in favour of nuclear is due to their intermittent nature. Goodall explains:
“If we’re going to spend a great deal of money developing offshore and onshore wind, it’s inevitable that hundreds of times a year we’ll have a lot more than we need. We have to find a means of buffering.”
This would require investment in storage technology, converting the electricity to hydrogen or hydrogen converted to methane so as to maximise productive periods of the year.
Hitcachi’s announcement has come as a blow to the government’s nuclear strategy, but experts are hopeful that this is just the move required to force the government into action over renewables. Goodall pragmatically explained:
“It could result in more fossil fuel emissions. Or, it could put pressure on the government to go back to wind, and combine that with energy storage.”