Nuclear energy and its potential importance for net zero

This article was originally written as a longer piece in Energy Spectrum on 21 March 2021. To find out more about a subscription to Energy Spectrum, please contact Nick on n.palmer@cornwall-insight.com.

Nuclear energy has been an integral part of the UK’s electricity system for many decades. Currently, nuclear provides around 20% of electricity in the UK, but the majority of the fleet will be decommissioned in the coming decade.

In this blog, we consider the role that nuclear can play in net zero and what the current challenges and opportunities are.

The basics

Most of the nuclear fleet consists of Advanced Gas-cooled Reactors (AGRs) built in the 1970s and 1980s. The AGRs are complemented by the Sizewell B unit, a relatively modern pressurised water reactor (PWR) and soon to be joined by the twin-reactor PWR plant at Hinkley Point C. Modern nuclear power is capital-intensive but is designed to last for 60-80 years and has the capability to deliver low carbon electricity annual load factors of up to 90%.

Some of the early reactors had operational issues leading to lengthy outages and were designed without a clear decommissioning plan in mind, resulting in costly clean-up. The current generation has a reputation for lack of flexibility, not only in the generation market sense but also in lack of adaptation of the latest technological advancements and innovative solutions that have been developed in other sectors like automotive and robotics.

The costs of new nuclear generation have been increasing in Europe and North America in recent years, causing concern about the impact on consumer bills, especially when its levelised cost of electricity (LCOE) is compared with renewables such as wind and solar PV.

The value of nuclear generation to the UK energy system is:

  • Its weather-independent, low carbon operation, with emissions on par with offshore wind.
  • Its positive impact on electricity system inertia which is increasingly important as thermal plants retire.
  • Its reliability which translates into high operating load factors.

This was reflected in the BEIS electricity generation costs report published in August 2020, which introduced an enhanced LCOE measure to account for the generator’s value to the energy system as a whole. While the report did not include the enhanced LCOE value for nuclear in specific terms, it showed increased costs for variable renewable energy and relatively stable dispatchable generator’s costs.

The government has expressed its support for nuclear on many occasions. The most recent declaration was made in the Energy White Paper published in December 2020, outlining support for large-scale nuclear projects and smaller, more innovative designs like Small Modular Reactors (SMR) and Advanced Modular Reactors (AMR).

With new reactors and new designs come new possibilities for the expanded use of nuclear energy, beyond just electricity generation. While nuclear power is typically seen as an electricity production technology only, it is at heart a low carbon heat source. The heat produced in a nuclear reactor can be used for other purposes than just electricity generation, as was first demonstrated in the UK many decades ago when the Calder Hall reactors supplied process steam to the Sellafield plant. As the economy takes on the challenge of deep decarbonisation of all sectors, nuclear power is likely to expand its horizons beyond electricity generation.

There are several challenges to reaching net zero, where its proponents believe nuclear could add value. Some of tomorrow’s main issues concern: How to provide low carbon heat to our homes and industry? How to produce low carbon drop-in replacement fuels? And how to not only stop emitting but also start subtracting CO2 out of our atmosphere

In our next blog, we will discuss some of the arguments where nuclear helps address these challenges, considering hydrogen, low carbon process heat, direct air capture of CO2, flexibility and synthetic fuels.

Malwina is part of our Consultancy team who works with highly reputable companies on a range of energy-focused projects. To see more about how the team helped businesses in 2020, view our infographic here. To discuss with the consultancy team how we can help with your energy project needs, please contact enquiries@cornwall-insight.com.

Interested in nuclear energy and consultancy? contact us to find out more about working with us.

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