Solve the climate crisis without new nuclear? Forget it

On the 27th May 2020, EDF Energy submitted a planning application to build a new nuclear power station at Sizewell on the Suffolk coast. Upon completion and at full capacity the station could generate 3.2 Gigawatts (GW) of power, close to 10% of the UK’s grid requirements. EDF is already building a new Nuclear Power station in the UK – Hinkley Point C – and EDF proposes an almost identical design for Sizewell C.

Nuclear power is controversial, but it shouldn’t be. Those who present it as a dirty, dangerous, and wasteful power source are not only wrong, but they actively harm attempts to decarbonise energy production and to reduce emissions. Our government should do everything it can to facilitate Sizewell C, and other new Nuclear sites – without them we have no hope of net zero by 2050, let alone sooner.

Britain’s nuclear capacity sits just shy of 10 GW. On most days 15 nuclear reactors contribute somewhere between 15 and 20% of Britain’s grid power. But these power stations are aging, and by 2025 almost half of them will need to be decommissioned and retired. This presents a problem – where is the electricity going to come from when those generators go offline? Not wind-turbines or solar panels – these renewable energy sources are comparatively intermittent and unreliable. Increased energy storage capacity might be a solution in the long term, but Britain has in the pipeline only 1.5 GW of battery projects, 5.5% of daily energy demand – a long way from enough to mitigate the scale of this problem. No, in all likelihood the slack for lost nuclear power would be taken up by gas and coal fired stations, with the infrastructure to meet substantial shortfall at demand.

This is important. We must remember that the alternative to no new Nuclear isn’t offshore wind or solar parks – it’s coal and gas. Many people argue that Nuclear power is dangerous for our health and wellbeing, and they cite Chernobyl, Fukoshima, and Three Mile Island – all real disasters – to support their case. But two of those examples – Fukoshima and Three Mile Island – resulted in no deaths, and multiple studies have concluded that Three Mile Island had a statistically insignificant effect in cancer cases in the surrounding area. We are all familiar with Chernobyl – 2019’s Sky production ensured that – but many have argued that the accident was the result not of hazards endemic to nuclear energy but rather of an aging reactor and the poor Soviet safety culture.

But even if you factor in the highest death estimates for Chernobyl – some suggest 60,000 people worldwide died as a result of the catastrophe – coal power, averaged out, kills shockingly, substantially more. A report published in 2020 concluded that coal power had a death rate of an estimated 100,000 deaths per terawatt hour – from air pollution, mining accidents, environmental degradation and related illnesses. Nuclear Power? A comparable death rate of 90. Even rooftop solar – an energy source seen by many as safe and clean – kills almost six times as many people as nuclear, largely when people fall off their ladders. The claim that nuclear power presents real and measurable hazards simply does not stack up.

What about waste? We’re used to the idea of glowing barrels with ominous insignia, and there is a small degree of truth to that image. But 90% of the waste produced by civilian nuclear energy is so-called ‘low level waste’, and does not present any serious health risks for people or for the environment. Even when the most dangerous waste is considered, a 1,000 MW nuclear power station – generating energy for a million people – annually produces three cubic metres of high level waste. And again, it’s important to remember that when discussing these decisions we have to compare nuclear, not with wind, or solar, or with nothing at all, but with coal or gas power. Here’s a surprising fact: coal produces more nuclear waste than nuclear power. Coal contains trace amounts of uranium and thorium, and when burnt at scale, these harmful pollutants find their way into the ash. A study conducted in the 1970s concluded that people living near a coal plant had 18 milliremes of fly ash radiation in their bones. Those living near a nuclear power station had between a sixth and a third of that.

In the modern world, everything we enjoy – from wedding rings to car parts to power – produces waste, and nuclear power a comparatively small amount. At the end of the day, the one real downside to nuclear power is its cost. Hinkley Point C looks to clock in at around £21billion. It’s worth noting from the outset that that this money is best seen as an investment – EDF Energy have suggested that constructing the power station will deliver 25,000 jobs, and that the project is injecting £200 million into the local economy, per year, with 64% of the construction contracts going to UK companies, delivering further employment. That doesn’t take away the cost, or the controversial involvement of Chinese companies and the risk they present to questions of national security, but it is still worth factoring into discussions about financing.

But what are the risks of not building new Nuclear? Despite the recent revolution in offshore wind power there are still days when those wind-farms generate no energy, and it is then that Britain needs power sources it can fall back on. Without Hinkley and Sizewell, those days will see the lights back on in Britain’s vacant coal plants, and yet more CO2 emitted.

Nuclear power is amazing technology, one of the few unquestionable forward steps in human history, providing a clean, safe, and reliable energy source, emission free. In a time of climate crisis, how can we turn our back on it?