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Should the British Government still be investing in nuclear energy?

ByGeorgina Hill

Sep 29, 2016

Electricity underpins modern life; powering everything from your lightbulbs, to your laptop to your toothbrush. The UK Government has been committed to securing a low carbon energy supply for years, signing the Kyoto Protocol in 1995, then the Climate Change Act of 2008. It pledged to reduce emissions by at least 80 per cet in 2050 from 1990, an ambitious aim.

Nuclear energy is seen as a key technology. There are already 15 nuclear reactors in the UK generating over 20 per cent of our electricity. However, as almost all of these existing nuclear reactors are due to close by 2030, we are facing a potential energy deficit. Therefore, new builds must start now.

On September 15, the UK Government announced they were proceeding with construction of a new nuclear power station, Hinkley Point C. It has an estimated construction cost of £18 billion and a projected lifetime of 60 years. From the outset, it has been a controversial project for multiple reasons. Not only is the use of nuclear technology for power generation a hotly debated subject itself, but this project is in particular, due to significant foreign investment from France and China required for its build.

Few of us will have realised how long plans for Hinkley Point C have been in the making. Initial targets suggested the plant, which is joining two other nuclear power stations on the Bristol Channel coast of Somerset, would be up and running this Christmas. However, after largely French state-owned electricity company, EDF, ran into technical and financial problems, and the UK Government called for a comprehensive project review, a new target sets energy generation to start in 2025.

Multiple amendments to the initial agreement regarding ownership and control of the plant mean the government now feels secure enough to commence construction. But some still argue nuclear energy is not the way forward.

There is little doubt that nuclear power has the potential to provide huge amounts of sustainable, low carbon energy. Forecasts suggest Hinkley Point C will provide a huge seven per cent of the UK’s electricity over its lifetime. However, the build appears to be commencing on shaky grounds.

Some experts in energy and climate change suggest that the technology on offer is flawed and expensive, even in relation to more expensive renewables such as offshore wind. In Flamanville, France, costs to build a reactor of the same design, using European pressurised reactors (EPRs), has more than tripled and is six years behind schedule. Another EPR project in Poland is 10 years behind.

However, the technology does meet strict safety requirements set by the UK Office for Nuclear Regulation and the Environmental Agency, and nuclear energy certainly has its advantages. For example, nuclear reactors can supply a constant base load, making integration into the energy grid much less complex compared to intermittent sources such as wind and solar energy. Technological advances mean EPR technology uses less fuel, produces less reactive waste and can operate for longer than older reactors. Importantly, learning from past nuclear failures at Fukushima, EPR technology has a reinforced core, highly resistant to external hazards.

Nuclear power is widely accepted as a vital component in the energy mix and the nuclear industry in UK has been established for years. However, it is likely that technological difficulties and delays in construction may hold up progress towards environmental goals. From a strategic standpoint, it can be argued that we must put substantially more focus on cutting back consumption of electricity rather than trying to facilitate overconsumption.

Image: Reading Tom

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