Management / How going nuclear could be the answer to increasing energy demands

How going nuclear could be the answer to increasing energy demands

Rahmon Agbaje talks to the Nuclear Industry Association’s Tom Greatrex about why nuclear power is a more viable – and safer – energy source than its reputation suggests

Energy is at the heart of everything we do in life. Whether it’s heating our homes, cooking our favourite meals or braving the underground for our journeys into work, the UK has an ever-increasing demand for energy.

But with climate change being the biggest existential threat facing our planet, the UK government has been setting ambitious targets to reduce emissions by 57 per cent by 2030.

Alternatives such as wind, solar and renewable energy are all being used to help tackle the problem – but the technology that many believe can most quickly combat climate change is nuclear.

“We’re in a situation in the UK where between 2010 and 2030, two-thirds of power stations will come to the end of their lives and they will need to be replaced,” Tom Greatrex, Chief Executive of the Nuclear Industry Association, tells Business Reporter. “And they need to be replaced in a way that is as low-carbon emitting as possible, in a way, that ensures that you have reliable, secure, readily available electricity.

“At the same time, we are in a situation where the distinction between energy and electricity is diminishing because we are gradually electrifying transport.

“There is more demand for electricity and less demand for other fuels. That is good for the environment, because you can do that in a low-carbon way. It also means there is a need for significant new infrastructure to be built in the country to generate electricity.”

Having returned from giving a conference talk about small modular nuclear reactors, Greatrex – a former Labour Shadow Energy minister – explains that electricity will be generated from a number of different sources, including wind, solar and storage technology.

However, he thinks the only way to reduce carbon emissions quickly on a large scale is through nuclear energy.

Currently, nuclear power accounts for more than a fifth of electricity generated in the UK, but Greatrex explains to meet our future energy demand more infrastructure needs to be built.  Hinkley will be the first, but there will be other large-scale nuclear projects, potentially in North Wales and Cumbria, Suffolk and Gloucester on sites that have already been determined.

Greatrex believes these projects will also bring employment benefits for their local communities. He says: “Hinkley Point C, in the early stages of construction, has about 2,000 people on site now and has had a really significant economic impact in that part of Somerset, not just with the big companies but engaging local supply chains on a whole range of different things, not just in construction but in support of the construction.

“That model is likely to be replicated as the basis for the way other projects will go forward as well. The scale of these undertakings is really significant. It has a direct economic benefit to those areas.”

Building a nuclear power plant is no simple task, however – and concerns are looming over how the UK’s preparations to leave the European Union will affect the country’s resurgent nuclear power industry. One issue which remains a sticking point is the UK’s position in the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). Although the UK government has stated its intention to leave Euratom, what is not clear is whether the procedures and agreements which presently fall under Euratom will be replicated.

Says Greatrex: “The danger of not having those in place presents a significant disruptive effective on the nuclear industry.” The nuclear industry, he explains, has always been very international in its character and a lot of the components which make up a power plant are traded across borders. A lot of skilled personnel also work between different sites across Europe and exchange information. All of those things currently happen because of Euratom.

The sight of large nuclear power plants in the UK will become increasingly common – and with any luck, more removed from the cartoon stereotype of Homer Simpson’s feckless employee in Mr Burns’ nuclear power station in The Simpsons.

“We need to have enough time to replicate all of Euratom prior leaving or we risk causing disruption to just about everything.”

Another concern about increased nuclear technology in the UK is the risk of accidents which can have devastating and long-lasting consequences because nuclear materials are so harmful, as demonstrated in the 1986 Chernobyl incident.

Greatrex points out that techniques of handling nuclear materials are far more sophisticated now, and will continue to develop. Furthermore, the UK has a strong record when it comes to nuclear care – Britain has been operating and decommissioning nuclear power stations for over five decades with no major accidents, thanks to robust regulatory and safety procedures.

“We’ve learned a lot from the past in the way in which we approach these things at the moment, and that’s something we’re widely regarded for and in some cases envied for around the world,” says Greatrex.

Other fears expounded by critics of nuclear power – particularly in the age of Kim Jong Un’s North Korea and building tensions surrounding nuclear weapons between North Korea, Japan and the United States – is the close connection between nuclear reactor technology and nuclear weapons technology.

However, Greatrex has a different view and expresses his trust in the international community and the nuclear non-proliferation treaty which closely monitors the development of nuclear weapons in every country.

He says: ‘’The overall number of nuclear warheads has decreased and the civil nuclear industry is not the same as the defence industry. Our focus is being able to provide the low-carbon power the world is going to need, which will help tackle climate change and increase energy security – which will often be the issue at the root of international conflict.

“The opportunity nuclear provides will encourage a more peaceful world as a result of being able to have the low-carbon mix which ensures the availability of electricity and energy that people need to be able to power their houses, businesses and public services.”

As the UK moves towards 2030, its reliance on nuclear energy is set to rise. The sight of large nuclear power plants in the UK will become increasingly common – and with any luck, more removed from the cartoon stereotype of Homer Simpson’s feckless employee in Mr Burns’ nuclear power station in The Simpsons.

This article was published in our Business Reporter Online: Water & Energy.