Nuclear power key to decarbonization of electricity

02 December 2008

A report by the UK's independent Committee on Climate Change (CCC) concludes that the economic case for new nuclear power deployment is strong and if the pace of renewable wind power should fail to meet targets the deployment of nuclear power should be accelerated to fill the gap.


The committee's report also says that to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 implies the almost total decarbonisation of electricity by 2030.


The CCC concludes that nuclear power is cost-competitive with conventional fossil fuel generation, even when decommissioning costs and fluctuations in uranium fuel process are allowed for. The main constraints on new nuclear capacity are likely to be the rate at which new plants could be built, given limited supply of technically competent nuclear specialist engineers and the demanding regulatory frameworks. 


In contrast, fossil fuel generation incorporating carbon capture and storage (CCS) would always be more expensive that conventional fossil fuel generation, according to the committee, because of the additional process steps required, although the committee thought CCS was 'technically feasible'.


The cost of deploying low-carbon technologies in the UK would be higher than the world average, according to the CCC, because of higher construction costs, higher costs and time involved in land acquisition and planning procedures. These higher costs affected all technologies, including wind, nuclear and new fossil fuel plant. Over the last three years, there had been large rises in the cost of wind turbines and of solar photovoltaic cells, as well as significant cost overruns in new build nuclear reactor investments. These increases have resulted from a combination of increases in material costs (e.g. steel, which in turn is driven by fossil fuel prices), skill shortages and by bottlenecks in supply chains.


The CCC did not believe that supplies of fuel would not place serious constraints on the growth of nuclear power, given proven and likely uranium supplies, alternative fuel sources and the long-term potential of fast breeder fuel recycling.


One potential issue raised by the CCC was that a greater reliance on nuclear and renewables could lead to an excess of generation capacity on some summer nights. However, the committee envisioned that this excess in supply could find new uses, such as being used to recharge batteries in electric cars. The committee states that it is likely that cost economics will argue for a significant nuclear role within the generation mix, particularly if and when greater use of battery electrical storage (for instance for electric cars) increases the demand for predictable off peak (e.g. overnight) capacity.


In the longer term, the committee concludes that an 80% cut in the UK's greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is achievable at a relatively small cost to GDP and that that cost can be appreciably reduced by keeping all technology options for electricity generation open, including renewables, nuclear and CCS.


To facilitate new investment in nuclear energy the CCC states the key public policy priorities will be:

  • A clear commitment to the principle of nuclear power deployment if and when cost justified, with supporting licensing and planning policies.
  • Clear and radical long-term emission reduction objectives, such as the committee's proposed 80% by 2050 target, which will only be achievable if electricity generation is almost completely
    decarbonised by 2030.
  • A clear commitment to keep tightening EU Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) caps and to appropriately limit the use of offset credit purchased within the EU ETS, to the extent required to meet long-term emission reduction targets.

The committee, chaired by Lord Adair Turner, advises the UK government on how it can meet its greenhouse gas emission goals. The committee was established in March 2008 after publication of the government's climate change bill, which set a target of a 60% greenhouse gas emissions reduction by 2050 for the UK. The government will report next year on how it intends to meet those targets.