Costs will dictate future of UK nuclear, says university

31 July 2018

Nuclear energy will be essential if the UK is to meet its greenhouse gas emission targets, a new briefing paper from Imperial College London concludes. However, it says the cost of new nuclear power plants needs to be reduced in order to make them more competitive with other clean energy forms.

How Hinkley Point C could appear (Image: EDF Energy)

"Nuclear power is one of the largest sources of low-carbon electricity today," according to the paper, titled The Role of Nuclear Electricity in a Low-Carbon World. "It has the potential to play a growing role in the future and its contribution may be indispensable if we are to meet climate change targets."

However, the paper - produced by Imperial College London's Grantham Institute - suggests "cost is probably the most controversial aspect of nuclear power in the UK today".

It says the UK government's decision to support the construction of the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant is "a big risk". But it notes that construction of the plant "also represents a crucial opportunity for the conventional nuclear industry, which has been under significant financial stress, to rebuild itself."

The briefing paper says the nuclear industry needs to complete the Hinkley Point C project successfully and "to drive down the cost of subsequent stations in the following programme of orders. Otherwise the future of large-scale nuclear power in the UK, and perhaps elsewhere in the West, is in doubt".

Government leadership will be essential for nuclear to play a major role in the UK's future energy mix, the paper says. "If nuclear power is to fulfil its potential to provide reliable low-carbon electricity, the industry will need to demonstrate reliable construction, reduced costs, and greater flexibility of operation."

Imperial College London's Grantham Institute and its Centre for Nuclear Engineering recently hosted a panel discussion to mark the launch of the briefing paper.

Neil Hirst, senior policy fellow for the Grantham Institute and author of the paper, said: "We have legally binding obligations to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. There are sectors, such as transport and aviation, where this will be difficult, so we will need to reduce emissions from electricity generation to near zero to make up for this." He added, "Ultimately, the case for nuclear power comes down to timing, and now is the time to invest."

Paul Spence, EDF Energy's director of strategy and corporate affairs, noted, "Renewables currently contribute about 30% of our electricity supply. We should aim to increase this but storage will be a limiting factor ... Unless we can solve this issue, nuclear has a key role in the mix."

In a discussion about whether nuclear is only suitable for providing baseload power, Ben Britton, deputy director of the Centre for Nuclear Engineering, said: "Modern reactors have more flexibility than ever, especially with new engineering solutions that provide a fast switch-off option to dial back power generation."

The Centre for Nuclear Engineering is the umbrella organisation for all nuclear engineering academic activities at Imperial College London. The Grantham Institute is Imperial College London's hub for climate change and the environment.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News