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The UK's nuclear slowdown could derail our shift to clean energy

In a year where the news veered consistently between two poles – “awful” and “very awful” – one recurring spark kept hope alive: the UK’s electricity network. Last year, the UK totted up 83 coal-free days, including a record-breaking 18-day stretch in May and June. For the year as a whole, 43 per cent of the UK's electricity came from fossil fuels, with coal making up just two per cent – both of them record-breaking stats in their own right.

The decade overall yielded some encouraging stats, too – the amount of UK electricity coming from renewable sources jumped from seven per cent in 2010 to 37 per cent in 2019. Since 1990, the country has cut its emissions by around two-fifths. And in 2019, the UK became the first major economy to target net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

But a spectre is haunting the UK’s emissions targets – the spectre of nuclear retirement.

According to an analysis conducted by Simon Evans at Carbon Brief, annual low-carbon electricity output from wind, solar, nuclear, hydro and biomass increased by the smallest amount in a decade, adding only a single terawatt hour to the UK’s electricity capacity – less than one per cent of the total amount. Overall low-carbon capacity growth, by comparison, grew by an annual average of 9TWh in the last decade.

Evans points out that low-carbon generation would need to increase by 15TWh each year until 2030, just to meet an overall carbon intensity of 100 grams of CO2 released for every kWh of electricity produced. This 100gC02/kWh benchmark was initially set by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) to reflect the UK’s earlier climate goals (the CCC later revised its target to 50gCO2/kWh), but with the country now committed to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, overall energy intensity will likely need to be below 100gCO2/kWh.

These nuclear retirements are significant. By the early 2030s, just one of the UK’s seven nuclear power stations will be operational. Over the last few years, plans to construct three new power stations – Hitachi’s Wylfa Newydd nuclear plants on Anglesey in Wales and Oldbury in Gloucestershire, and Toshiba’s Moorside project in Cumbria – which together could have met 15 per cent of the UK’s future electricity demands, have been scrapped.

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“It's clearly not good – we’re taking away capacity, and nuclear is around 20 per cent of generation at the moment,” says Martin Freer, director of the Birmingham Energy Institute. “And the program for replacing the existing nuclear is not very significant – it's just the Hinkley Point C reactor at the moment, which is going to leave a very large gap in the in the present generation of nuclear.” (Hinkley C in Somerset, which is projected to come online around 2026, should provide seven per cent of the UK’s electricity needs.) Freer estimates that, in order to sufficiently decarbonise heat and transportation, we must find four to five times the amount of electrical generation that we have at present.

Wind power could provide one solution. Carbon Brief reports that the UK’s wind farms overtook nuclear for the first time in 2019, becoming the country’s second-largest source of electricity generation, after the completion of several new wind farms this year. “There's reasons to be concerned and as usual it's a fabulous piece of research from Simon Evans, but on its own, it's not enough for us to say no, these targets are not possible to achieve,” says Chris Goodall, an energy expert and author of The Switch. The CCC, for instance, plotted a range of pathways to meeting the UK’s 2030 climate goals; only some of these involve further nuclear plants beyond Hinkley C.

Success, Goodall claims, depends on the continued expansion of offshore wind. He estimates that Hinkley Point C will provide around 25TWh of the extra 162TWh of low-carbon electricity generation required by 2030. Add this to the government's target of 40GW of offshore wind capacity by 2030 and this should be enough to meet our low-carbon requirements, Goodall says.

But this optimism towards wind power is not universal. “In the context of decarbonising everything, I think it’s very challenging to do that and anybody who says that that is possible is being highly optimistic,” says Freer. “We don't have the large scale storage capability in place [for wind] and indeed the technologies which would get us there are nascent technologies – they've not being demonstrated that scale.”

“Offshore wind has the same limitation as onshore wind and solar, albeit to a lesser extent, which is, its output is variable dependent on the weather, and therefore doesn't always match demand,” says Tom Greatrex, chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association. This seasonal variability, he says, could lead us to becoming even more reliant on fossil fuels to meet energy demands. He points to Germany, where nuclear power stations have been closed, and lignite coal is burned to meet German manufacturing industry’s power requirements.

“When you look at the Committee on Climate Change report they talk about 38 per cent of power by 2050 needing to be firm low carbon power, which basically means nuclear or retrofitted Carbon Capture and Storage,” says Greatrex. “Without those, you are reliant on unabated fossil fuel burning, almost certainly gas, and potentially some coal.”

In order to meet these difficult targets, it might be foolish to rule nuclear out. “You need to back as many horses as you can, and I think nuclear is a key component of that,” says Freer.

“The UK needs to find ways of making the [financial] barriers which were too high for the horizon Hitachi project in Wales, lower, and there are companies who, if one can get the right conditions, will continue to invest in nuclear.”

The government will produce a white paper in the Spring, outlining how the UK will meet their 2050 decarbonisation net zero target. This will be a key moment to watch out for, says Freer. “One is waiting to see what's in that, but hopefully that will set a new direction.”

This article was originally published by WIRED UK

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