Nuclear power has been dogged since its inception by massive costs, safety fears, chronic project overruns and deep popular scepticism. The 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan triggered its abandonment by Germany, while France plans to drastically cut its nuclear fleet. Despite this, its proponents continue to tout the technology as a clean energy solution. Indeed, the UK government insisted last week that nuclear will help the country reach its target of becoming a net-zero carbon emitter by 2050. While most clean energy experts believe the writing is on the wall for large-scale nuclear, some argue that the size of the climate problem means investment in small modular reactors could be money well spent, if they can be proven to work. [SMRs are] “A waste of money,” concludes Tom Burke, chair of climate think tank E3G. “This government is preoccupied with headlines and Boris [Johnson, the UK prime minister] likes white elephants.” “The current fleet of EPRs is weird; they don’t behave in the way they should,” says Benjamin Sovacool, Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Sussex, UK. He is referring to the technology used by nuclear power stations such as Flamanville in France and Hinkley Point. “They should follow a positive learning curve, with the next generation getting cheaper and cheaper like wind or solar, but nuclear seems to work counter to that trend.” Instead, recent experience in Europe has seen nuclear plants going massively over budget and over time. In addition, as Sovacool adds, there are huge safety and social acceptability questions surrounding the technology. The UK, like the rest of Europe, can decarbonise without nuclear, agrees Brian Vad Mathiesen, professor at the University of Aalborg in Denmark. In 2016, he jointly authored a paper setting out a scenario for 100% renewable energy in Europe by 2050 based on a highly integrated energy system and sustainable bioenergy. “By integrating the electricity, heating/cooling and transport sectors with one another, it is possible to utilise very large amounts of wind and solar power,” concluded the researchers. Sovacool describes SMRs as the “technology of the future that has already passed” given the timelines involved. “SMRs are in theory designed to take nuclear’s biggest challenges and solve them – but at the moment they are paper reactors,” he says. Whether these technologies have a part to play in the long term in decarbonising our economies, “the true answer is that we don’t know”, says Sovacool.
Energy Monitor 25th Nov 2020 read more »