Is nuclear energy green?

Decarbonising energy is fundamental to achieving the UK’s net zero goal. Green electricity generation in particular offers the best hope for reducing the carbon emissions of the most polluting sectors, such as road transport.

In 2020, the UK obtained 21.5% of its primary energy from low carbon sources, including 6.6% from nuclear, according to data from the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy.

Looking at electricity generation specifically, in 2020 the UK generated 28.4% from wind and solar, 16.1% from nuclear, 12.6% from other renewables and 2.2% from hydro. The remaining electricity came from fossil fuels, primarily gas (35.7%). 

Nuclear is clearly a vitally important source of low-carbon energy in the UK’s economy at present. And that capacity can only become more crucial as, in the lead up to COP26, the government announced ambitious plans to make Britain’s electricity system “net zero carbon” by 2035. 

If greenhouse gas emissions are measured across the whole lifecycle of energy generation – from extraction of raw materials to decommissioning – nuclear can be categorised as similar to wind and solar.

Yet, nuclear energy is often left out of conversations about green energy and it was excluded from the UK’s June 2021 Green Financing Framework, which sets out what kind of projects are eligible for financing from the proceeds of the UK Government’s green gilt programme and retail Green Savings Bonds. These financial instruments are central to the government’s strategy for financing the transition to a green economy.

The reason given for excluding nuclear energy projects from the framework was that many sustainable investors have exclusionary criteria in place around nuclear energy. Concerns over the potential mismanagement of nuclear waste and over safety following the Fukushima disaster in Japan are among the reasons sometimes cited by investors. Nuclear is also seen as expensive.

But while the private sector has concerns over nuclear, and other countries such as Germany, Switzerland and Belgium are phasing out their nuclear energy provision, the UK government remains committed to nuclear as a low-carbon power source.

After announcing the exclusion on nuclear energy, the Green Financing Framework report went on to say: “The UK Government, however, recognises that reaching net zero emissions will require all energy to be delivered to consumers in zero-carbon forms and be derived from low carbon sources. Nuclear power is, and will continue to be, a key part of the UK’s low-carbon energy mix alongside solar and wind generation and carbon capture and storage.”

Indeed, a June 2021 report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Nuclear Energy provided a stark warning, “Without new investment… the UK would lose 30% of its indigenous clean power generation. Without a clean, firm power base to stabilise the grid, the UK will have to pay for costly fossil fuels and imported power to cover gaps in generation. By 2035, emissions will be 200 million tonnes higher.”

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The reliability factor 

Energy security, which the All-Party group alluded to, is tricky to manage, as demonstrated by the current European energy crisis, which has been caused by gas shortages and, to a lesser degree, lower than expected windspeeds. A healthy mix of energy sources is one strategy for shoring up supplies.

The government is expected to announce funding for a new nuclear power plant before the 2024 election as part of its net zero strategy. “We are seeking to approve at least one more large-scale nuclear project in the next few years to strengthen energy security and create thousands of jobs,” a government spokesperson told Reuters. 

The public would seem to be supportive of the government’s stance on nuclear, with a September YouGov poll finding that two-thirds of Britons believe nuclear should play a role in the country’s climate change strategy.

The Energy Systems Catapult, set up to bridge industry, government, academia and research to ensure businesses and consumers capture the opportunities of clean growth, also takes a pragmatic view of nuclear. The Catapult conducted a series of deep dives into the technologies needed to achieve net zero. Its Nuclear for Net Zero analysis is a techno-economic assessment that used a peer-reviewed modelling system to look at the potential contribution of nuclear energy in supporting decarbonisation pathways to net zero by 2050.

The assessment found that there is a credible path available to realise significant nuclear cost reduction, delivering potentially lower costs and risks associated with achieving UK Net Zero targets.

The debate about whether nuclear energy should be part of a low-carbon energy system will undoubtedly roll on for decades more, bound up with the wider balancing act of cost, resource availability and reliability of supplies. But while it does, nuclear energy looks set to continue playing a vital role in helping Britain achieve its net zero ambitions.

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