Is nuclear energy really an enigma?

By Prof. Derek Taylor, Former Energy Advisor to the European Commission

Love it or hate it? Nuclear energy, do we want it? Or, do we want to get rid of it?

No matter how much, or how little, people know about nuclear energy they nearly always have a strong, often totally entrenched opinion about it. Both in the UK and in Europe it is a very divisive issue making it difficult for politicians to take decisions about its future.
But do we really need it and if so, why?  Is it incredibly expensive or is it an economically attractive option? Is it sustainable or not? And the ultimate question, “What about all that radioactive waste?” How much is there? Where is it all? What can be done with it?
Like it or not, nuclear energy provides nearly one-third of all the electricity generated in the European Union (EU). France produces the most nuclear electricity followed by Germany and then the UK.  Presently half of the 28 EU States produce nuclear electricity with 130 reactors being “operable” in June 2015, four new reactors under construction and a further 19 planned.
However, while public opinion is usually very poorly informed about nuclear energy it is strongly divided about its benefits, and if such benefits outweigh the risks or not. In the latest Europe-wide survey (Eurobarometer, 2010) 51% of the population said the risks of using nuclear energy outweighed its benefits, while only 35% though the benefits outweighed its risks. In spite of this, 44% of Europeans declared themselves in favour of using nuclear energy with 12 Member States taking a more positive position. All these States, which include the UK and perhaps surprisingly Germany, are currently generating nuclear electricity.

Energy policies are usually based on three key criteria; security of supply, competitiveness and sustainability. All sources of energy, present and future, need to be examined in the light of these criteria. For the majority of people security of supply appears to be the most important. They want to know that the lights will come on when they flick the switch or plug their increasing amount of electronic gadgets into the socket. A source of electricity that is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year and whose supply of fuel is almost impossible to interrupt clearly meets this criteria.
Competitiveness is in some ways a more difficult concept to define and understand. I always think of it as “affordability” or more simply “cost”. If electricity is very expensive it reduces the competiveness of any industry using it. So the easiest way to estimate if a source is competitive is to look at its cost of production. This is usually measured as a “levelised cost of electricity” (LCOE) taken over the whole life of the facility and including both the initial investment covering construction of a facility, the running costs during its operation life and its deconstruction (and/or “decommissioning”) after its useful life. The most widely quoted source of LCOE’s is the International Energy Agency (IEA) / Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) series of studies. These show that in most regions nuclear electricity usually has a lower cost than coal, gas and onshore wind.
Sustainability: can we continue to use the source in the medium to longer term without an adverse effect on us or our environment? With the growing acceptance that Climate Change is happening and the understanding of the part played in this by emissions from power generation, in particular carbon dioxide, all sources are being re-examined to decide if we can continue to use them. Contrary to the belief of many people, a nuclear power plant does not emit carbon dioxide (CO2) during its operation. In fact, over its whole lifetime, it possibly emits less CO2 per unit of power than any other source! In addition, because of very high energy density only relatively small quantities need to be produced and transported annually, the amounts of waste produced are very small and all these wastes are contained and, where necessary, totally isolated.

Total volumes of radioactive waste produced in Europe are around 110,000 m3/year. The very large majority of these are low or very low-level wastes of which over 2 million cubic metres have already been disposed off, mainly in the UK and France. Annual European production of the most dangerous waste form, “high-level waste”, totals less than 200m3 (just enough to fill 1.5 “Routemaster” double-decker buses!) Compare this with 3.65 billion tonnes of CO2 the EU energy sector emits each year. Nuclear energy must be regarded as very sustainable option.
For the above reasons, the Heads of State of the G7 recently expressed the view that by the end of this century all our electricity should come from nuclear and renewable energies.
In a world with an ever growing population with an increasing demand for energy, especially for electricity, plus the need to “clean up our act” to combat climate change, it is important to know if nuclear energy could or should play a role in our future. In fact, it is the only source of electricity that meets all three energy policy criteria and it is the only major source of electricity that is available 24/7 while not emitting CO2.
Is nuclear energy still an enigma? What are your views?
Derek recently gave a lecture on this specific discussion as part of our GERC Invited Lecture Series.
If you missed it you can watch it again on our GERC YouTube channel.

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