Science

Nuclear power: generating problems for the future?

A look into just how 'green' nuclear energy is.

Photo Credit: Felix Koenig:


Although nuclear energy is proven to provide low carbon electricity, with relatively high energy security, the sector faces many challenges. 

Nuclear energy was once thought to be the final solution to the worlds’ energy problems, but is now creating more problems than it is worth. The UK has invested heavily in nuclear power, but whilst it is a secure source of electricity, it is also massively expensive. The power plants may cheap to run despite having waste disposal and decommissioning costs, however building them is accompanied with a large price tag. These capital costs include construction, site preparation and manufacture. According to the World Nuclear Association, “building a large scale nuclear reactor takes thousands of workers, huge amounts of steel and concrete, thousands of components, and several systems to provide electricity, cooling, ventilation, information, control and communication”.

Nuclear power is quickly losing support to renewables, both in terms of popularity and cost. On average, renewables have dropped to about a third of their original price in recent years and are becoming increasingly more viable. A long standing problem is that renewable energy cannot be stored and generation fluctuates according to weather conditions. However this is quickly being solved with new developments into large scale energy storage, such as using banks of batteries or compressed air. Nuclear power plants on the other hand are having ever-increasing costs and vulnerabilities, needing vast amounts of water, and any problems within the plant cause long shutdown periods.

Nuclear fission is the process by which electricity is generated from splitting atoms of a radioactive material, usually uranium. Because nuclear power plants do not burn fuel, they do not produce greenhouse gas emissions. Nuclear reactors sustain an ongoing chain reaction of fission, through surrounding the solid uranium fuel in water. The reaction splits the uranium atoms, generating heat and releasing neutrons, which then hit other uranium atoms causing them to split too, generating more heat and neutrons. This heat then provides the steam which drives an electricity producing turbine.

The topic of just how ‘green’ nuclear power is has been questioned throughout the years. The power stations create vast amounts of nuclear waste, which is tricky to dispose. There is also the issue of nuclear accidents and disasters which, while having a low chance of occurring, are devastating when they do happen, and create fear and panic. In comparison, renewable energy sources do not experience these problems.
In the UK, there are 15 reactors generating about 21 per cent of our electricity, however, by 2025 almost half of this capacity will be retired. In addition, the UK’s electricity market is liberalised and power generation is privatised, which makes investment into nuclear energy problematic. 


Hinkley Point power station in Somerset. Photo Credit: Richard Baker


Earlier this year, EDF reported that the development of Hinkley Point, a controversial power plant in Somerset, was £1.5 billion over budget and 15 months behind schedule. Two new reactors are in development, originally projected to cost £18 billion, however the overrun could be up to £21 billion. In November, Toshiba announced it had scrapped plans of a nuclear plant in Cumbria that was set to generate 7 per cent of the UK’s power. Then in January 2018, Hitachi also scrapped plans to build a power station in Wales, as well as indefinitely suspending plans for another in Gloucestershire. This has left a large hole in UK power generation, as together the plants would have provided 15 per cent of electricity demand. The Guardian reported that the the Green party noted EDF’s review of the project should be the “final nail in the coffin” for Hinkley, and advocates the reduce of nuclear power in general. 

In nearby Europe, there are 128 nuclear reactors, found in 14 different member states of the European Union.  Nuclear power makes up more than 25 per cent of the electricity produced by the EU as a whole. Half of this is found in France, a country that historically has had a high percentage of nuclear energy, and had in 2011 an operating capacity of 903 GWe . However, many member states are strongly antinuclear, and electricity markets often face opposition to the power source from populist support for renewables. 

From now to 2030, it is like that nuclear capacity will be reduced worldwide, due to either reactors reaching the end of their safe operating life, or being decommissioned from political opposition. A decrease of 122 GWe is expected across the whole of Europe in the nearby future. In France and Finland, two other power stations are also significantly delayed and over budget.

The debate of how sustainable, efficient and viable nuclear energy is, and how many benefits it provides is still raging on. However if developments into renewables continue to produce successful results, and have none of the problems that nuclear creates, nuclear power itself could face decommission.

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