Is nuclear power worth pursuing in the face of a renewable-energy revolution?

30th August 2017

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  • Politics & Economics


Steven Priestley

Dr Paul Dorfman, Honorary senior research fellow, Energy Institute, University College London

“No, and it’s unwise to limit renewables for political reasons”

The nuclear renaissance is going nowhere. The renewables revolution is set to take off.

In the US, two unfinished nuclear reactors have been abandoned, putting an end to a project that was plagued by delays and cost over-runs. Japanese corporation Toshiba has been bankrupted by the cost over-runs of its US nuclear arm, Westinghouse, and its failing AP1000 reactor. In Europe, EDF/Areva’s EPR reactor is three times over-cost and over-time. Hinkley Point in the UK will be no better.

Meanwhile, solar and wind power are taking off. Worldwide solar costs have plummeted by 50% in the past five years, and Germany and Denmark are signing subsidy-free offshore wind contracts. Within just three years renewables will be the cheapest form of energy, according to investment bank Morgan Stanley.

Germany uses around 20% of all EU electricity, so the country’s decision to phase out nuclear power by 2022, invest in renewables, energy efficiency and grid network infrastructure and plan for trans-boundary pumped storage hydroelectricity is a game-changer.

The development of diverse, sustainable and affordable renewable energy is a growing economic sector, with huge potential for job creation.

To limit this diversity through support of nuclear power seems unwise.

Tom Greatrex, Chief executive, Nuclear Industry Association

“Yes: it makes sense to have a mix of energy sources”

The answer depends on whether you believe in a low-carbon electricity mix. If you don’t, then you don’t necessarily need low-carbon nuclear power, but you do need polluting gas or coal to deliver always-on electricity.

Sensible commentators acknowledge the limits of each energy technology. The government’s 2016 Digest of UK Energy Statistics proves that the idea of a 100% renewables panacea is a fallacy. The figures, published last month, show that low-carbon sources accounted for 45% of the UK’s electricity generated. Nuclear produced 21% of the UK’s overall electricity generation, intermittent renewables (wind, solar and established hydro) 15.1% and biomass the final 8.9%.

When you look at the load factors of each technology, it is clear the future requires both nuclear and renewables working together to keep the lights on. In 2016, nuclear produced electricity for 77% of the time. In comparison, the overall wind load factor was 29%, and the load factor for solar was 11.1%. The UK also remained a net importer of electricity, mostly through interconnection with France, which produces 75% of its power from nuclear power stations.

With the intermittent nature of renewables being a problem, nuclear must remain part of the mix. There is no single ideal solution for all our power problems, which is why it makes sense to have a mix of energy sources.

Emma Pinchbeck, Executive director, RenewableUK

“Yes: we need choice as the system goes through change”

Renewables are in the ascendancy. While capacity and generation has gone up, costs have come down dramatically. Onshore wind is now the cheapest form of new generation capacity we have, while offshore wind has reduced its own costs by over 30% in the past four years alone. On the global stage, investment in clean energy technologies has been at around the $300bn (£231.30bn) mark each year for the past six years.

During the past 10 years, the UK has gone through an energy transition. Wind power was providing around 1% of our electricity in 2007, whereas it now provides more than 11%. Renewable energy as a whole consistently provides 25% of the UK’s power year-on-year, and we need that figure to increase if we are move to a truly low-carbon economy.

But the conversation about which forms of low carbon or renewable technology we purse doesn’t have to be an either/or choice. The renewables market is still developing, storage is just coming online, and smart and flexible infrastructure is being built. Estimates at how much of the system could be renewable range from 50% to 100%.

The UK’s 5th Carbon Budget envisages a majority renewables-led system, but with new nuclear also in the mix as the cheapest route for consumers in the mid-term. A broad low-carbon energy mix gives government and consumers choice in how we manage the electricity system as it goes through significant change.


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