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A nuclear renaissance

Sizewell

18 Jan 2011

Dr Bill Nuttall from the Judge School at the University of Cambridge gave a public lecture at Huddersfield University on 10 November 2010 looking at the case for a nuclear renaissance in the UK.

Dr Nuttall is an internationally acknowledged expert in energy policy and is involved in providing energy solutions and advice for research groups regarding nuclear energy as we move towards a sustainable future. To assess the validity of a nuclear renaissance he discussed four areas of importance, by considering the environmental impacts and economic consequences as well as the history and public opinion of nuclear energy.

Dr Nuttall argues that nuclear fuel is not the only answer to the UK’s energy needs but equally it is not an inherently evil technology, rather its position falls somewhere between the two extremes.The concept of a nuclear renaissance is driven by the need for cheap clean energy to run alongside renewable energies such as solar, wind and wave. The UK has signed up to the EU 2020 target of reducing our carbon emissions by 20% and to have at least 20% of our energy needs met by renewable energy sources. An efficient way to reduce our emissions is through the use of nuclear energy which - however we look at it - is a very low carbon source of energy. At present the UK’s overall nuclear power consumption is currently around 22%, which is set to decrease due to the decommissioning of our current sites.

The need to generate electricity is not the only driver for the application of nuclear energy: another driver is the need to decarbonise our entire economy as far as possible. Much of our electricity generation in the UK comes from sources which create more problematic emissions especially with regards to CO2. A nuclear renaissance would play a major role in reducing our CO2 emissions by replacing fossil carbon fuels, both for power generation and for transportation, by supporting electrification.

The current particle reactors in the UK all have shut down dates including life extensions that will close within the next decade, it is unrealistic to assume that it is possible for a twenty year life extension on a gas power reactor. At present there are eight new build sites under review, which will replace old nuclear sites with new sites, as there is a workforce in place which has the familiarity and heritage around nuclear fuel. In the case of our new plants we can say that for generation III big is beautiful. That is to say the capital cost and fuel costs for a 600 MW plant are essentially the same for a 1200 MW, so if you’re going to invest money and effort in capital cost you may as well build a big plant.

Energy policy is best understood through the idea of an energy triangle, which encompasses economics, environment and safety. Economists look forward to having energy security and expect it to come at a price, but it is also necessary to consider the factors of safety and environment. Waste from nuclear power is a reality and requires thoughtful consideration, as the long-term management of waste and the public perception of the nuclear industry is of vast importance. Nuclear waste can be portrayed as the Achilles heel of the nuclear energy debate.

While 75% of the costs for producing electricity from coal is for the cost of fuel alone, for nuclear fuel the cost of turning yellow cake into useable fuel is only 5% of the total energy cost, meaning that any fluctuations within the market for uranium would have a limited effect on our electricity bill. Yellowcake has a more diverse geographical market than oil; it is safe to stockpile and is processed here within the UK. We have seen gas prices fluctuate wildly: the need to have secure sources and stable prices for energy in the future is a very strong argument for nuclear fuel.

Dr Nuttall concluded his lecture by considering the public perception of nuclear fuel and the fear that has been associated with it. British Nuclear Fuel has made huge advancements in terms of technology and safety, however the same advances have not been made in reducing the perceived fear factor with the wider public. Nuclear fuel is not a panacea for all our carbon requirements such as our petrochemical needs, but a nuclear renaissance alongside renewable energy resources will be effective in decarbonising our energy and transport needs.

Angela Preston, Yorkshire and the Humber Regional Group

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