Does nuclear energy have a future?

3rd April 2021 | Commercial Energy

Right from the beginning of nuclear power – the first commercial nuclear reactor was built at Windscale in Cumbria in 1956 – it was controversial due to issues of safety, cost and the long-lived and toxic waste it produces. Even so, nuclear energy continued to expand globally until the 1990s, since when it has all but flatlined. Then, ten years ago last month, the disaster at Fukushima dealt its reputation a body blow. Within days Angela Merkel, previously a strong backer of nuclear energy, ordered all of Germany’s reactors to be phased out. In China the world’s biggest programme of new nuclear plants was put on hold.

Nuclear Energy

Globally, nuclear power produces around 10% of the world’s electricity, making it the second-biggest source of low-carbon energy after hydroelectric power. But that’s a sharp drop from a peak of 18% in the mid-1990s. According to figures collated by Bloomberg, there are 440 nuclear reactors currently in operation, with a combined electrical capacity of 392 gigawatts (GW). Another 50 are under construction, adding around 15% to current capacity. But that’s not even enough to make up for the 25% of reactors due to be shut down in advanced economies by 2025. Nuclear accounts for a bigger slice in advanced economies – 18% rather than 10%, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), making it the largest low-carbon source of energy. In the UK, for example, about 20% of current electricity capacity is nuclear. However, half of that is due to be retired by 2025, and all but one of the existing fleet of nuclear reactors is due to be taken offstream in the next ten years. Meanwhile, only one new plant, the 3.2 GW Hinkley Point C in Somerset, is being built, replacing just under 40% of current nuclear capacity.

So it’s in decline?

In most of the world, yes, with advanced economies due to lose two-thirds of their nuclear capacity by 2040. Proponents of nuclear power (including the IEA) argue that it is vital to the overall drive for net-zero carbon emissions by mid-century. Despite the impressive growth of solar and wind power, says the IEA, the overall share of clean-energy sources in total electricity supply in 2018, at 36%, was the same as it was 20 years earlier due to the decline in nuclear since the 1980s. “Halting that slide will be vital to stepping up the pace of the decarbonisation of electricity supply,” it says. Advocates argue that nuclear-power plants aid electricity security by keeping power grids stable and limiting impacts from seasonal fluctuations from renewables, and cutting dependence on imported fuels. In other words, nuclear has a vital role to play as reliable “firm generating capacity” during the decarbonising shift to renewables, and winding nuclear down for misguided safety reasons would be folly.

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