The Nuclear Option – Stuart Paton
The well attended All Energy Conference took place in Glasgow a couple of weeks ago- a wide range of keynote addresses, presentations and lots of big pieces of kit covering wind, solar, hydrogen, marine renewables, storage. But not ALL energy – where was the discussion on nuclear? There seems to be a complete lack of discussion on nuclear energy in Scotland which is reflected in the Scottish Government Energy Strategy. For a low carbon energy which generated 30% of Scotland’s electricity in 2021 this seems surprising.
The Scottish and UK government have very significantly reduced the CO2 emissions from the generation of electricity over the last 20 years. Indeed, Scotland has almost entirely decarbonised electricity with 57% of the electricity generated in 2021 being from renewables- wind, hydro, solar, waste and renewables – and 87% from low carbon generation- renewables plus nuclear.
However, two key issues remain. What happens when the wind, which represented 41% of total generation in 2021, is not blowing? At present, although Scotland generates significantly more electricity than it uses (about 40% more in 2021), the country only generates what it needs 75% of the time and only 50% of the time if nuclear is excluded. The balance has to be made up by importing electricity, currently from England which has a much lower proportion of electricity produced from low carbon sources (49% versus 87% in Scotland) with the balance largely gas generation end hence not low carbon. Even as Scotland increases significantly its own generation capacity in offshore wind, there will still be periods when it is not self-sufficient and hence requires base load capacity – essentially hydro once Torness closes in 2028.
Secondly, as we move to electrify other components of our economy- electric vehicles for transport, heat pumps for homes, production of green hydrogen for various industrial uses- we will need to massively increase the amount of electricity required. Using some big assumptions, I have estimated that Scotland will require 100GW of installed capacity to deal with the additional requirements for home heating and transportation. This compares against 14GW of current capacity and recent ScotWind awards of 25GW of capacity. [So, the aspiration is in the correct direction but potentially only meets 50% of the required capacity to achieve net zero for current electricity uses, home heating and EVs.] Further, the reliance on wind generation requires huge investment in the grid, to cope with the new sources of more remote onshore and offshore locations, frequency regulation and grid balancing due to the reliance on wind turbines rather than traditional turbines and storage, to balance supply and demand. The move to electrification of transport and heating requires investment in car charging points and heat pump installers plus the softer issues of public education – how does a heat pump work compared to my existing gas boiler (not an easy question to answer), how do I find out this information etc.
So, how are we going to achieve this massive increase in capacity? On the basis of the Scottish Government’s strategy, we requires a huge increase in onshore windfarms of a much larger scale than currently installed – with likely local hostility and a negative impact on the environment both in terms of habitat loss and visually particularly in wild spaces – and a huge increase in offshore windfarms – at greater distance from the coast in deeper water and hence more expensive – and importing more electricity from neighbouring countries – England and Norway – which will presumably have the same demands for increased supply. Or we consider an alternative source of energy, which has safely been providing Scotland with electricity for more than 60 years and which still provides 30% of our generation.
So, what does nuclear energy provide?
Firstly, a large base load capacity of zero carbon generation for a long period of time (50-60 years). This is clearly demonstrated by the scale of the remaining operational nuclear power station at Torness which on its own generates 30% of Scotland’s electricity day-in-day out, almost every day of the year (allowing for maintenance). Further, this base load capacity has been provided safely for decades relatively close to Scotland’s population centres- Torness in East Lothian and Hunterston on the Ayrshire Coast- without extensive, long distance transmission as required for windfarms.
Secondly, the area required. Torness power station, with a capacity of 1.3GW covers less than one square kilometre. In contrast, the largest onshore windfarm in Scotland, Whitelees covers 55 square kilometres for a capacity of 500MW and Seagreen, offshore the Fife coast, covers 3000 square kilometres (at very low density it has to be said) for a capacity of 1GW. Without a significant change in public perception, it is hard to see the necessary huge windfarms being built onshore in more wild, remote parts of Scotland. Large offshore windfarms require significant subsea cabling which can be unreliable and costly to repair or replace and will impinge on other sea bed resources, such as Carbon Capture and Storage.
Thirdly, and unusually for many key resources which are vital for the energy transition, much of the necessary uranium is found in friendly countries particularly Australia and Canada reducing the overreliance on Chinese and Russian products. Compare this with the location of critical minerals and gas where we are increasingly reliant on the Middle East and unstable countries in Africa with scant regard for the welfare of local communities or environment.
Finally, there are a range of technical options being pursued for advancing nuclear generation. Large sums of research money, including from Bill Gates, are being invested in a variety of alternatives in particular Small Modular Reactors (SMR). These have capacity of up to 300MW per unit and can be factory assembled and transported to a location for installation. They can, therefore, be installed in sites not suitable for larger power plants, are relatively low cost and simpler design and can be installed where there are existing grid connections. The most advanced project in the UK is a Rolls-Royce led consortium designing a 470MW Small Modular Reactor. The UK government has committed £385 million to an Advanced Nuclear Fund and in March announced a competition for small nuclear reactors. Very small scale Advanced Nuclear Reactors which could be used for back-up generation, desalination plants and in remote locations are also being advanced. And of course, the great hope of fusion technology is being progressed including in the UK.
The downsides to nuclear energy are well rehearsed.
Cost is presented as the biggest barrier. The estimated cost of Hinkley-C has yet again increased to £33 billion for a 3.2GW capacity. In comparison, Seagreen is costing approximately £3-4 billion for 1GW. However, a number of other factors need to be considered. Firstly, the costs of future nuclear stations, assuming they can be repeats of Hinkley-C are likely to come down as they have done for wind turbines and solar panels over the last ten years and there is recent upward pressure on wind turbine costs. Secondly, the electricity price of £92.5/MWhr for Hinkley-C cannot be compared against the £37/MWhr Contract for Difference prices for offshore wind as the latter does not include the costs of ensuring base load capacity- either through paying for storage or import of electricity from England at prevailing gas prices- which significantly close the gap.
Secondly, the risk of catastrophic incidents. The three highest profile nuclear accidents- Three-Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukoshima- were fundamentally the result of poor regulation and operations. There have been no such failings in relation to UK nuclear energy in the almost 70 years since the first UK civil nuclear reactor opened. According to Our World in Data, the death rates from accidents and air pollution from nuclear energy (0.03 deaths per terrawat-hour of electricity generation) including Chernobyl and Fukoshima, are comparable to those from wind and solar and hundreds of times lower than from gas, oil and (in particular) coal.
Thirdly, the disposal of highly radioactive waste. The volumes of high level waste, essentially spent nuclear fuel, accounts for 95% of the radioactivity but less than 1% of waste by volume. All the high level waste produced to date in the UK would cover a quarter of a football pitch to 1m depth. Improving efficiency of future reactors means that the volume of waste is only likely to increase by 10% in the next 60 years. Currently most high level waste is stored at Sellafield in Cumbria where it is vitrified to make it impermeable to water and chemically stable. A permanent geological solution is being considered by the UK government with a similar scheme already under construction in Finland.
Despite the range of evidence for and against, the Scottish Government’s Energy Strategy is clear and unambiguous– no nuclear including not even considering alternative technologies such as SMR. The Scottish Government’s position on traditional nuclear energy has not changed: ‘We do not support the building of new nuclear power plants under current technologies’- with the stated reason being due to the cost. In relation to SMR technology, a bland statement that ‘these use the same nuclear fission technology as the power generating process found in larger traditional nuclear power plants and carry the same environmental concerns.’ As stated above, the cost argument is more nuanced when taking into account the need for reliability of supply, grid and frequency balancing and possible much cheaper generation from SMRs. To emphatically rule out SMRs on environmental grounds when the biggest environmental challenge is climate change also seems derisory.
In relation to fusion the Scottish Government strategy states: ‘We are also aware of increasing interest in the development of fusion energy – which is different from traditional nuclear fission energy. However, we are clear that there is a long way to go in terms of fully understanding both the risks and opportunities that fusion energy technology presents.’
This strikes me as a deeply disappointing view from the current leaders of a country that has been at the leading edge of a range of technological innovations. We have a thriving University sector, with deep expertise in engineering and nuclear technology- what a waste to not even get involved in the race.
In this discussion, Scotland is increasingly an outlier in its complete refusal to consider nuclear energy. In England, Hinkley-C in Somerset is already well advanced and Sizewell-C in Suffolk is approved, groundworks have started and construction is planned to start in 2024. In March, the UK government classified nuclear power as ‘environmentally sustainable’ which removes a level of uncertainty regarding future investment. Japan is restarting reactors shut down following the 2011 earthquake and meltdown at the Fukushima plant and is extending the lifespan of some reactors from 40 to 60 years and considering building new ones. Despite doubling renewable electricity generation since 2010, Japan has significantly increased its use of gas and coal to make up for the shortfall in nuclear. The Netherlands recently announced plans to build two new nuclear power plants by 2035 which together would provide 13% of the country’s generation. In 2022, France announced plans to build six new reactors and to consider building a further eight. Worldwide there are 59 reactors under construction and 103 planned largely in China, Egypt and India. A range of national and international bodies, including the International Panel on Climate Change, the International Energy Agency, the OECD and the UK Climate Change Committee all view nuclear energy as critical to achieving net zero.
I have always struggled to understand the anti-nuclear power approach taken by the SNP supported by the other main parties in Scotland, except for the Conservatives. Although limited data exists, opinion polls generally show the public broadly in favour nuclear power particularly when considered as part of the energy mix to reach net zero. The Labour party in Scotland is also out of step with the engineering unions and the party in England. I think part of this is a hangover from the 1950s anti-nuclear movement when the development of civil nuclear generation, at sites like Chapelcross, was closely linked to the weapons development.
However, given the huge challenge we face in achieving net zero, the reliance on wind and the complete repudiation of nuclear, including research on nuclear power, seems misplaced. This is not about being pro-nuclear for its own sake but facing the reality of the situation. At a minimum, we need an informed open debate about the merits and risks of nuclear power- what are the true comparable costs to onshore and offshore wind, what are the volumes of radioactive waste, where will the waste be sorted long term. And, most importantly, if we do not have nuclear power where will we generate sufficient, reliable, low carbon electricity for electrification of our heating, transport and industry?
Stuart Paton is an energy industry advisor and former Chief Executive of Dana Petroleum. He is also an associate of Reform Scotland