How nuclear power can help make all UK electricity green by 2035
Boris Johnson is expected to announce at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester that all UK electricity will come from renewable sources by 2035, according to a recent report. in time.
The government suspects that the British public – tired of queues at gas stations and dreading winter gas bills – will like the idea of moving away from fossil fuels. But the nature of this energy crisis, fueled by a late summer lull in wind power generation, high wholesale gas prices and Britain’s poor energy storage prospects, demands a cautious response.
And what energy technology offers low-carbon benchmarks and a reliable baseline supply? The UK government’s categorical response appears to be nuclear power.
Only three years ago, British ambitions for new nuclear power plants were in trouble. Major Japanese conglomerates Toshiba and Hitachi had ended their separate nuclear projects in the country. But with the renewed support of Boris Johnson’s government, one of them now appears to be back on the table.
It was recently revealed that there are ongoing discussions between the government and US partners about US nuclear engineering company Westinghouse building a new nuclear power plant on the island of Anglesea in North Wales. There is even talk of government support for Derby-based industrial giant Rolls-Royce to develop a series of smaller modular nuclear reactors. These are essentially scaled-down versions of traditional power plants that will generate 470 megawatts of electricity compared to the 1,000 megawatts of their larger counterparts. Above all, with these new designs, true factory manufacturing becomes possible. The factories produce modules for rapid assembly on site.
Read more: Everything you need to know about mini nuclear reactors
The government’s approach is expected to have benefits for UK businesses. But how would a new generation of nuclear power plants help keep the lights on while reducing emissions from the energy sector?
The nuclear option
Reactors in nuclear power plants convert the heat generated by the splitting of atoms (a process known as nuclear fission) into electricity and can usually run at full power for months, regardless of the weather. This process does not emit greenhouse gases, although it is likely that there will be some during the construction of the plant itself. Steam rising from the iconic cooling towers of a nuclear power plant is water, not carbon dioxide.
Large nuclear power plants have huge turbogenerators running at high speed. These maintain their speed in the face of small national fluctuations, ensuring the stability of the network. A constant baseline supply of nuclear power could continue to meet demand when renewable energy production falters because the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining.
There are other ways in which nuclear energy can contribute to decarbonization. The heat generated in nuclear reactors could be pumped into central heating systems in homes and other buildings, replacing fossil gas boilers. Nuclear power could even be used to produce hydrogen for fuel, a form of stored energy with potential benefits for heating and transportation. And because nuclear fuel like uranium is what is called dense energy, even relatively small amounts can provide a sufficient supply. The UK also has its own fuel plant and uranium enrichment plant, allowing greater national control over the entire process.
Read more: The future of nuclear power: plants could produce hydrogen, heat homes and decarbonize industry
Concerns remain about the cost and safety of nuclear energy. But these must now be seen in the context of climate change. Fossil fuels in the production of electricity must stop, and the stable and continuous operation of nuclear power plants is a useful addition to the variable production of renewable sources such as wind and solar. This seems to be the logic of the government, in favor of a boost to investment in nuclear and renewable energies.
British governments have pushed to rebuild Britain’s nuclear capability more than once in the past two decades. When Tony Blair was Prime Minister he was targeting a series of very large nuclear power plants. Construction of the first of these, Hinkley Point C, is well advanced. The pandemic and other issues have caused delays, but the first electricity produced from its two large reactors is expected in summer 2026.
Hinkley Point C is backed by a financial deal with China, made by former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne. The days when, in 2015, Osborne said “Britain should run to China” is fading. So too has the rhetoric of a nuclear renaissance that has coincided with post-Cold War optimism for globalization and liberalization of markets. First, it became clear that competitive electricity markets were struggling to meet the challenge of replacing old nuclear with new. Then globalization weakened with the return of the nationalism of the great powers.
Nuclear technology is back in the government’s sights, but this time it will involve more British money and technology. The discourse on a green future was joined by right-wing voices calling for a new sense of national autonomy, free from the vicissitudes of the world’s supply of fossil fuels. Despite such realities and the many difficulties encountered along the way, the British nuclear renaissance remains internationalist in its outlook. It is a force that must be defended.