Mar 17 2023

UK Building More Nuclear

The nuclear debate seems never-ending, which I guess is to be expected. Every large technology has tradeoffs. But the need to transition our energy infrastructure to carbon neutral has shifted the equation, and it is now arguable that we cannot afford to ignore the option of nuclear energy. The UK seems to agree with this take – they currently generate about 15.5% of their energy through nuclear reactors and are planning on expanding this to 25% by 2050.

The UK has not built a nuclear power plant in over 20 years, which means their current plants are all near the end of their lifespan. This can be extended to buy enough time to replace them with newer plants, but they need to be building those now, which they are. They plan to approve 8 new plants by 2030, and have them all online by 2050. These are all large nuclear power plants. But they also plan on building small modular reactors (SMRs), which can be built faster and cheaper. Rolls-Royce, for example, has a design for an SMR and they anticipate that they will get regulatory approval for the design by the UK by 2024. If they do there are preliminary plans to build 10 such reactors, with the first coming online in 2029. (I don’t know if these 10 reactors are included in the 25% by 2050 estimate of it they will be incremental.)

In my opinion, this is all good news. As I have discussed before, if we realistically want to reach our collective goal of a carbon-neutral energy infrastructure around 2050 we will need to develop every option. Putting all our eggs in any one basket is likely not a good idea. Having 20-25% nuclear as baseload, another 20% hydroelectric and geothermal for on-demand energy, perhaps some hydrogen (if there really are reserves we can tap into), and the rest wind and solar with some grid storage (perhaps closed loop hydro with some battery storage) is a reasonable first-approximation of what our energy infrastructure can look like. This will vary geographically, but this may be close to an average mix.

We can argue and nitpick about the exact percentages, but honestly that does not really matter. For now, we need to develop all of these options as quickly as possible. We need to map the best path to carbon neutral, that reduces emissions as quickly as possible. That means getting rid of coal first, which is the dirtiest energy. If, in the short term, we need to burn some natural gas, that is Ok as long as it is replacing coal. But all fossil fuels need to be gone by about 2050. Building a core of nuclear power will help us get there. Capturing some carbon would be nice, but I see that as the icing on the cake. Perhaps the best way to do that for now (just to buy us some time for the switchover) is to plant lots of trees and stop deforestation.

The usual objections to nuclear always seem to surface when it comes up. In the BBC article, for example, they seem obliged to mention what the critics say. The weakest complaint, by far, is the claim that it takes too long to build nuclear power plants to help us achieve our goals by 2050. This is absurd. That is the argument of someone who is just emotionally anti-nuclear and is searching for any argument to bolster their side. This claim is made in the same article saying that these plants will start coming online by 2030, and will be producing 25% of UKs energy by 2050. That’s the idea – as older plants age-out, they are replaced and expanded with newer plants.

What to do with spent nuclear fuel is another objection. While this is definitely an issue, the fact is that so far there hasn’t been any harm done by storing spent nuclear fuel – and we’re not even doing it optimally. In the US, for example, we were part way to developing Yucca mountain for long term storage until it was killed by NIMBY. This is a purely political problem. Just figure it out and put it somewhere. Also, spent nuclear fuel can be largely reprocessed into more fuel. This can be expensive, but is not a deal-killer. It extends the utility of existing nuclear fuel, and effectively deals with the spent nuclear fuel problem. So just do it. Again this is one of those problems that is totally solvable if the political will were there.

Safety is another serious issue, and I would not minimize this. But safety is again a completely solvable issue. Most nuclear power plants run very safely without major incident. The big nuclear events that happened were largely cause by human failure, poor regulation, and ignoring known issues. They were entirely preventable. Overall, nuclear power is among the safest sources of energy. It is safer than any other option save for solar power, which is just a little safer statistically. It is safer than wind power. Also keep in mind that over the next 30 years nuclear power will primarily be replacing coal power – and coal is the least safe source of energy, and actually releases more radioactivity into the environment than nuclear power. So while there is still coal power in the world (currently at 37% globally), it makes no sense to avoid nuclear because of safety issues. Risk is all relative.

The final objection is cost. This is a real issue, but we need to keep this in perspective. In the UK, for example, the cost of new nuclear is expected to be £92.50 per megawatt hour. This is lower than the current  £161 per megawatt hour, but energy is currently expensive in Europe because of the pandemic and the war and the energy crisis they created. Prior to the pandemic energy was £50 per megawatt hour. What does all this mean? Nuclear power is more expensive than the cheapest energy during good times. But I (and others) would argue that this price is artificially low, created by fossil fuel and other subsidies. The biggest subsidy, some argue, is allowing fossil fuel companies to externalize the cost of emitting carbon. Further, the higher current price is not necessarily “artificially” high, it’s just high. That’s what happens when you don’t have energy independence and rely on a world market of a product largely produced by politically unstable parts of the world. That has to get factored into the long term price of fossil fuel also – it cannot be dismissed as “artificial”. The cost of nuclear would be more stable and predictable (mostly amortized costs of building the plants).

Finally, we have to calculate the total cost of energy as part of the entire grid system. While I am a huge supporter of wind and solar (to a point), and they are legitimately currently very cheap to add to the grid, we cannot look at that cost in isolation. We have to consider the entire cost to the system. If we need to build grid storage, for example, in order to accommodate more wind and solar, that cost has to be factored in also. The better comparison is between the total cost of the entire energy infrastructure that includes various mixes of energy sources. What is the total cost of a system that includes some nuclear vs one that doesn’t? When looked at that way, nuclear can be a cost effective component because it is reliable baseload and reduces the need for grid storage and helps stabilize the grid.

This is my reading of the consensus of expert opinion, but admittedly there is a range of opinions and continued controversy. This is the position that seems to be dominant and also make the most sense, but I can be convinced otherwise if that is where the center of expert opinion moves. But we need to keep in mind, it does take decades to build infrastructure, and we no longer have the luxury of time. We cannot decide in 20 years that we should have been building nuclear 20 years ago. Too late. We need to hedge our bets – and in many people’s opinions, that means doing everything for now and seeing where the chips fall.

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