Nuclear cost-effective for UK cuts

10 May 2011

Nuclear power is likely to play a significant role in meeting the UK's greenhouse gas emission reduction targets for 2020, an independent committee has said. Meanwhile, a think-tank claims over-ambitious renewables targets could harm decarbonisation. 


The UK government's climate change bill, launched in March 2007, sets a series of clear targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions - a 26-32% reduction by 2020 and a 60% reduction by 2050, which will be legally binding. The 2050 target was subsequently raised to 80%.


The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) was set up in 2008 to advise the UK government on climate change issues. In May 2010, the newly-elected coalition government requested that the committee review the potential for renewable energy development and to advise on whether existing targets should be reviewed.


The CCC has now published its findings, saying: "Our overall conclusion in this review is that there is scope for significant penetration of renewable energy to 2030 (e.g. up to 45%, compared to 3% today). Higher levels subsequently (i.e. to 2050) would be technically feasible. Equally however, it would be possible to decarbonise electricity generation with very significant nuclear deployment and have limited renewables; carbon capture and storage (CCS) may also emerge as a cost-effective technology."


According to the committee's report, "Nuclear generation in particular appears likely to be the most cost-effective form of low-carbon power generation in the 2020s (i.e. before costs of other technologies have fallen), justifying significant investment if safety concerns can be addressed." However, the CCC suggests "full reliance on nuclear would be inappropriate, given uncertainties over costs, site availability, long-term fuel supply and waste disposal, and public acceptability." Nevertheless, "given maturity and relatively low costs, [nuclear energy is] likely to play a major role at least to 2050."


The report - entitled The Renewable Energy Review - notes that "nuclear generation is unlikely to be subject to a fuel resource constraint for at least fifty years although this may become an issue in the longer term." It added, "In the medium term, availability of sites may become a binding constraint."


Commenting on the recent accident at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the CCC noted, "Whilst the specific circumstances in Japan differ significantly from those for new nuclear in the UK, in principle this could affect the potential for nuclear power to contribute to decarbonisation in the UK." However, it added, "The likelihood of natural disasters of this type and scale occurring in the UK is extremely small." The committee suggests that, should a full review of the UK's use of nuclear energy subsequently call for limiting its future deployment, "a higher renewables contribution would be required."


The review recommends that the government "adopt a portfolio approach to technology development. This should cover both renewable generation and other low-carbon technologies." The CCC said that this "should include market arrangements to encourage competitive investment in mature technologies such as nuclear and onshore wind generation."


The review sets out an illustrative scenario where 40% of electricity comes from renewables, 40% from nuclear, 15% from coal and gas with CCS and less than 10% from unabated gas. This scenario, the CCC said, is based on "commitments on support for offshore wind and marine through the 2020s … broadly in line with planned investment and supply chain capacity to 2020." It is also based on "investment on all eight currently approved sites, with around 18 GWe new nuclear added to the system through the 2020s."


Chair of the committee Lord Adair Turner said: "Our analysis shows that renewable energy technologies are very promising, and have an important role to play in helping to meet the UK’s carbon budgets and 2050 target, alongside other low-carbon technologies such as nuclear and CCS."


Too much too soon? 


Meanwhile, the independent think-tank Policy Exchange has warned that the UK's 2020 renewable target, "is unnecessarily expensive and damages the prospects for reducing carbon emissions over the coming decades by wasting money that could be used to fund research and demonstration of a wide range of new, low carbon technologies."


According to a report from the group, requiring the use of specific renewable technologies in the short-term increases the costs of decarbonisation. "The target costs far too much to achieve far too little decarbonisation," it says. In addition, it suggests the government's renewable energy target damages long term decarbonisation efforts both in the UK and abroad.


Policy Exchange suggests that the UK government "needs to take steps now either to renegotiate the target or to reduce the wasted costs of implementing it."


The group studied 16 different models proposed for achieving the UK's target of an 80% cut in emissions by 2050. However its analysis found that "none of the models showed that the UK's commitment to producing 35% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020 was needed to reach its carbon target."


"We conclude that the renewable energy target damages the prospects for achieving decarbonisation objectives in 2050 by allocating resources inefficiently, by failing to maximise innovation in low-carbon generation," Policy Exchange said. In addition, "it sets an example of expensive decarbonisation other countries will find far from compelling."


According to the group's report, the models "indicate the importance of CCS and nuclear. Without one or the other, the costs of decarbonisation rise extensively. Without both (i.e. using solely renewables for generation), the possibility of reaching the 2050 decarbonisation objective is thrown into serious doubt." The obstacles to nuclear, it says, "are predominantly political and economic."


Researched and written

by World Nuclear News