Nuclear option

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Japanese engineering group Hitachi has purchased the UK nuclear energy company Horizon from its German owners E.ON and RWE, in a “100-year commitment” to the UK. There are plans to build between four and six new plants at Horizon’s Wylfa and Oldbury sites, supplying an estimated 14 million homes with electricity over 60 years. Over 12,000 jobs will be generated during the construction process, after which 2,000 permanent jobs will be available across the sites. In addition, energy supplier EDF has started the consultation process for two new plants at Sizewell, which will generate enough energy for approximately 5 million homes. In the context of our current economic difficulties the opportunities sound promising. But with increasingly volatile weather patterns approaching, is nuclear the best investment for the UK?

Nuclear fission is a highly productive form of energy generation, with one atom producing 15 million times the energy available from carbon combustion, and no carbon emissions released at the electricity generation stage of the process. Currently nine operational nuclear reactors in the UK supply 16% of our energy demand. However, eight will be shut down by 2023 (in addition to 30% of oil- and gas-fuelled power stations by 2015), leaving an energy gap of 20-30GW. At the same time the UK government is legally bound to reduce carbon emissions by 26% by 2020, and it is estimated that the new investment in nuclear power will reduce our emissions by 7–14%. The government recognises nuclear as a key feature of a low-carbon energy mix – fulfilling the increasing energy demands of the UK whilst meeting our carbon reduction commitments.

Since the Fukushima crisis, the EU has called for safety improvements at all plants within its member states. Although a natural disaster along the lines of the earthquake and tsunami which caused the Fukushima catastrophe are an unlikely risk for us, super-storm Sandy in the USA led to the shutdown of three nuclear plants in New York and New Jersey, due to loss of power and high water levels. Scenarios such as these could potentially impact the UK. Erica Thompson, a research postgraduate at Imperial College London, is studying how climate models can be used reliably in decision making. She explained that due to its multitude of meteorological phenomena, the UK is one of the most uncertain regions for climate projections. However, what does seem certain is a future rise in sea levels and summer temperatures. This could pose a risk to the nuclear industry in particular, as power stations struggle to keep cool during the summer and are therefore usually situated by the coast in order to gain easy access to water for their cooling systems.

Erica Thompson explained that there is “no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing” – stressing that nuclear power plants need to be suitably ‘dressed’ to be resilient to the risks of our changing climate. At an Energy and Climate Change Committee meeting at the House of Commons, Dr Andy Hall, acting chief nuclear inspector at the Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), explained how there has been an improvement in new designs of power stations – including those proposed by Hitachi – that now take into account external hazards such as weather. However, ONR’s chief operating officer, John Jenkins, added that many of the features, such as back-up generators, were for recovery post-event.

After the Fukushima disaster, Germany decided that nuclear power was too risky and opted for a nuclear phase-out plan, calling for an immediate shutdown of nuclear reactors built before 1980, with all plants to be closed by 2022. Interestingly, the phase-out programme coincided with a reduction in Germany’s carbon emissions. Keith Barnham, Emeritus Professor of Physics at Imperial College, has shown that Germany has already installed more wind power than the UK’s nuclear capacity, and is installing the wind equivalent of one nuclear reactor every year. But while it has been proven possible by Germany, wind power is not a faultless technology. Many people in the UK find it aesthetically invasive, and some German citizens have claimed that the density of turbines in some areas creates noise and spinning shadows, which can cause headaches and nausea.

The question of whether nuclear is right for the UK is a complex debate that is being coordinated by the Energy and Climate Change Committee. The Electricity Market Reform bill has a big part to play, as does the consultation process for the communities adjacent to proposed sites. But with such a solid commitment from Hitachi, it seems inevitable that nuclear will continue to be a part of the UK energy mix.

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