Arguments for and against nuclear power
Nuclear energy forms the ‘centrepiece’ of Boris Johnson’s new energy strategy
As many as four new nuclear power stations and eight nuclear reactors could be built in the UK as part of the government’s plans to move to greener energy sources by the end of the century.
In a strategy published today, Boris Johnson set out his government’s intention to boost the security of the UK’s energy supplies and alleviate the pressure of rising global energy prices – and nuclear power is its “centrepiece”, The Guardian said.
The prime minister said the “bold plans to scale up and accelerate affordable, clean and secure energy made in Britain” will “reduce our dependence on power sources exposed to volatile international prices we cannot control, so we can enjoy greater energy self-sufficiency with cheaper bills”.
Johnson, “a new evangelist for the potential of nuclear power, got his way over the Treasury about the scale of increase in capacity to be targeted”, said The Telegraph.
The plans would see a quarter of the UK’s electricity come from nuclear sources by 2050. Doing so “is likely to require tens of billions of pounds of new investment from private companies”, and the “tensions” between No. 10 and the Treasury over the cost of these projects “have yet to be resolved”, said The Guardian.
The strategy’s publication gave “the clearest signal yet” on the locations of the next two nuclear power stations, said The Telegraph. They are expected to be built “in Wylfa, on the Welsh island of Anglesey, and Oldbury, South Gloucestershire”.
Many experts laud nuclear energy as a reliable power source with low to zero emissions, and one that has a vital role to play in helping governments worldwide reach decarbonisation targets. But the nuclear issue is by no means clear-cut, with opponents pointing to various potential disadvantages and hazards.
Pro: efficient power producer
Generating energy using nuclear fission requires significantly less fuel – specifically, uranium – than coal or gas power plants needed to produce the equivalent level of power. “You can fuel a nuclear reactor with tonnes of fuel, rather than thousands of tonnes of fuel,” said Oliver Morton in The Economist. And that makes nuclear a competitive energy choice.
Compared with renewables, nuclear is also a highly reliable power source. In the US, nuclear generators have typically operated at more than 90% capacity over the past decade, while wind power capacity has not topped 44%, according to latest US Energy Information Administration data. Nuclear has also consistently operated at higher capacity than hydroelectric power or solar.
Con: risk in unstable regions
The war in Ukraine has highlighted the threat nuclear power plants can pose when they are in a region that is or has become unstable. There are concerns over the safety of the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear plant, where scores of staff are being held under difficult conditions by the Russian military.
But perhaps the “bigger risk” comes from the potential for fighting around Ukraine’s four active nuclear power plants, “which contain fifteen separate reactors and generated over half of the country’s electricity in 2020”, said James M. Acton, writing for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank.
While Chernobyl remains inside a largely uninhabited exclusion zone, Ukraine’s other reactors “are not similarly isolated” and contain fuel “substantially more radioactive than the fuel at Chernobyl”, running the risk of a serious nuclear incident if the sites were inadvertently, or even deliberately, targeted. “To put it simply, nuclear power plants are not designed for war zones”, wrote Acton.
Pro: low emissions
Once in operation, nuclear power plants produce very low to zero amounts of direct greenhouse gas emissions. According to the World Nuclear Association (WNA), the impact on carbon emissions of using energy derived from nuclear sources instead of fossil fuels is “roughly equivalent to removing one-third of all cars from the world’s roads”.
After hydropower, nuclear power is the second largest source of low-carbon energy used to generate electricity, the International Atomic Energy Agency reports. The creation, maintenance and eventual decommissioning of a nuclear plant does contribute to carbon emissions – but the amount is minimal compared with that produced by the running of coal and oil plants.
Con: cost of nuclear plants
Nuclear fission is a much more expensive method of energy production than those involving coal or gas. The cost of running and maintaining nuclear plants is high, while the bills for building the sites are vast.
The UK’s Hinkley Point C plant was originally expected to cost £18bn when it was given the green light in 2016. But EDF, the French energy giant behind the project, announced in January 2021 that the final bill is expected to reach £23bn, in part owing to Covid-related delays that mean the plant is unlikely to open until the summer of 2026, said The Guardian.
However, standardisation of power station designs can help to reduce costs. France has adopted this approach and now derives 70% of the nation’s electricity supply from nuclear power.
Pro: public health
Nuclear energy has public health benefits that have already saved a vast number of lives worldwide, according to a 2013 research paper on the impact of energy sources on mortality rates. The US researchers calculated that nuclear power had prevented an average of 1.84 million deaths between 1971 and 2009 that would have been caused by air pollution resulting from burning fossil fuels.
By contrast, proponents argue, although exposure to radioactive waste can be lethal, the public’s risk of exposure is very low. The 1986 explosion at Chernobyl claimed the lives of 31 people in the immediate aftermath, but was the disastrous result of “a not very good nuclear plant being run in a terrible way”, says The Economist’s Morton.
And a UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation report published in 2021 found that radiation resulting from the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown in Japan in 2011 had resulted in no documented “adverse health effects” among local residents “that could be directly attributed to radiation exposure from the accident”.
Management and disposal of radioactive waste is an ongoing issue in nuclear power production. This waste can be harmful to both humans and the environment, and must be treated and conditioned to turn it into a “safe, stable and manageable form” before being transported and stored, the IAEA explained.
Yet according to Chemical and Engineering News correspondent Mitch Jacoby, “tens of thousands of metric tons of radioactive waste that accumulated from commercial power plants and years of national defence operations continue to age at sites around the globe”. In the US, massive quantities of solid and liquid waste are stored in temporary containers – and while “corrosion experts are doing their part” to protect people from potential harm caused by the hazardous waste, “the stockpile keeps growing”, warns Jacoby.