Can nuclear power solve the energy gap?

Sam Smidt is one of the lead educators on The Open University’s free online course, The Science of Nuclear Energy. In this post, she discusses whether nuclear power can – or should – have a role in our future.

A nuclear power plant

A nuclear power plant by Petr Adamek via Wikimedia Commons.

Decommissioning old coal, gas and nuclear power stations in the 2020s will result in a shortfall of energy in the UK – an “energy gap.” The debate about how best to make up that shortfall really polarises public opinion. Should we invest in nuclear energy? Will renewable energy provide enough to fill the gap?

Many people believe we should commit to renewable energy sources, such as wind, wave and solar energy, which are carbon free and don’t carry any of the risks and concerns about nuclear energy.

But renewables carry their own problems – the supply of energy is intermittent, they are still relatively expensive, and there are lots of issues about where to site wind or solar farms.

So, why are there concerns about nuclear power and are they founded? What are the pros and cons of nuclear power?

The pros and cons of nuclear power

On the plus side, it’s the most straightforward way of reducing the UK greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. It would offer energy security, meaning we would be less dependent on imported power and we can assure the fuel needed for the full lifetime of a new reactor.

But on the minus side, it’s expensive to build new reactors and investors won’t get a return on their investment for many years and therefore want guarantees about the return they will get.

There are environmental risks which were highlighted recently by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011. This led Germany to cancel its entire nuclear programme.

Then there are the issues around nuclear waste – while new reactors must have plans for dealing with the waste designed in from the outset, there is still lots of uncertainty about how to deal with the long-term storage of nuclear waste from the last half century.

Should nuclear power solve the energy gap?

So, can nuclear power solve the energy gap? The answer to this is a fairly certain yes, so perhaps a better question is “Should nuclear power solve the energy gap?” The answer to that is much harder to give.

What is clear is that the energy gap should be addressed in more than one way. While nuclear power may be one facet of our future energy portfolio, green, renewable energy sources must continue to be developed and should form an increasing part of our energy portfolio.

The potential for smart meters and increased energy efficiency measures must be exploited faster to change the way we consume electricity. By being smarter in the ways in which we consume energy and diversifying the ways in which we generate energy, we might be able to minimise our dependence on energy sources that we are not comfortable with.

What do you think? Should nuclear power solve the energy gap? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below or using #FLnuclear15. Or to find out more about the intricacies of this debate, join the free online course, The Science of Nuclear Energy.

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Comments (24)

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  • John Lateano

    Keep working on developing nuclear fusion. That’s got to be the most efficient way to generate energy.
    In the meantime, saving energy is the most important thing the consumer can do. And industry. There’s a lot of waste heat going into the atmosphere from the cooling towers in the photo above.

  • Peter Fleming

    The basic simplicity (relatively speaking!) and potential efficiency of a nuclear reaction surely mean that it must have a major place in future power generation. We would all love renewable, non polluting sources but this is not yet possible. Don’t mention wind farms! Ugly blots on the landscape that don’t solve the problem, and we don’t want to be using agricultural land to ‘grow’ petroleum producing crops. We can’t yet fly on nuclear power so we need to reserve dwindling oil supplies and constantly expand the use of electricity for ground transport etc, ideally using safe and reliable nuclear sources.

  • Brian Rogers

    Probably already been mentioned but should we not also be looking thriving the energy gap by reducing our consumption through efficiencies and removing waste. Also I take homage at the statement that no renewable energy source is intermittent, what about wave and tidal power. Driven by gravity from the moon and the sun if we ever lose the effects of these celestial bodies we will have more than an energy gap to worry about

  • Mark

    I wonder has any good research has been done on whether in fact nuclear power is as ‘carbon free’ as is sometimes assumed? If one takes the planning, building, commissioning, running/ maintaining, decommissioning and storage of spent fuel,
    is it possible the net effect of using nuclear power does not add up to a significant reduction in carbon emissions? Just a thought… Mark. x

  • khin myo thaw

    Nuclear Power gains increasing attention from countries around the world. But the accident occurred revealed the widespread consequences of a release of radioactive materials after a nuclear accident to people and environment. How to lead to the formulation of a regional network on Nuclear power plant safety research.?

  • wondwosen kebede

    Am Radiation safety officer, Nuclear power is the best option for solving the energy gap if we considering the security, safety and safeguard aspect. The main important thing to protect our People and Environment from unnecessary Radiation, that also started from the beginning of Extraction U/Th up to the waste management from reactor generator . I hope this course will advance my knowledge because my work almost Related to the topics.Thank you very much.

  • FARESS

    I am a petroleum Engineer who graduated from kasdi Merbah University in algerian, Faculty of Engineering with Very Good Grad (GPA 3.7), I had the opportunity, during this internship and working, to develop my knowledge in petroleum fields with different company
    well i want to enhance my skilles and learning more with programme futurelearning oil and gaz

  • Akinremi julian

    Nuclear power seems to be the best option to solve the energy gap but its challenges seem to be way of the norms. if we still have issues with managing the waste from reactors generated over the last 50 years then i imagine what we would have in the next 100 years. I believe the waste issue is a challenge that if foreseen can be dealt with but we must deal with it first and be sure we have a plan that would be sustainable and impactful on ground before deciding to make nuclear power our gap filler.

    I am glad am taking this course and id be sure to learn more since i come from and live in a part of the world thats still developing and energy(most especially electricity) is one major factor thats crumbling our economy

  • Mark Hambridge

    Having grown up near Calder Hall in Cumbria, ‘the first nuclear power station in the world’ we were told at the time, I was at first enthusiastic about the future with nuclear power. Now I am very cynical; the cooling towers are gone, but the reactor buildings still stand and presumably will have to be maintained ‘for ever’. That land is virtually sterilised for future use, and the used fuel wastes are still somewhere, buried and hidden from view. Meanwhile a new plant is to be built nearby on productive agricultural land, so accidentally emitted radiation can again be released over the people, agricultural lands and mountains of Cumbria and the Lake District National Park.

    I hope this course will advance my knowledge and reveal ways nuclear can again be licensed socially as well as by ‘the authorities’. Also, if the course does not address the life-cycle cost of a plant, it will have failed; nuclear-generated electricity may be ‘clean’ and ‘carbon-free’, but the cost of building and decommissioning a plant is far from it and these issues MUST be addressed in the consideration of whether to use nuclear-generated electricity.

    • Gordon MacKay

      Mark’s second paragraph is Key. So is that by Andy Meek below.
      So we are between a rock and a hard place: a place without sufficient energy to meet our increasing population and per capita energy needs, a place where the reality of dwindling fossil fuels is an inescapable reality, intimately linked to climate change.
      Thorium and Fusion offer immense promise, but as we hear in the news about the ballistic trajectory of Hinckley Point costs the near term costs look likely to spiral. Nevertheless the costs of not investing are unconscionable. On one day last week Wind and other ‘natural’ sources of energy overtook nuclear and fossil for the first time. It will likely not be the last in the near term. It is not just that we need to match growth because we must also face up to the fact that many power stations are approaching the end of their designed life.
      So we need all the help we can get and to dismiss any source seems reckless. I believe investment in nuclear is necessary, and equal efforts should be afforded to the huge challenges of developing power from fusion/thorium as well ongoing decommissioning, and safe storage of nuclear waste as well as it’s recycling/re-use.

  • aliaa dergham

    book nuclear energy for writer Chris Oxlade have many informations about nuclear energy

  • Paul Hurst

    There is an excellent documentary out called ‘Pandora’s Promise.’ It is a good look at the use of nuclear energy and it’s future.

  • jean wilson

    It seems to me that we would be advised to consider the use of nuclear energy, but in a way that it can be of no threat as a use for destruction. There seems to be no doubt that minds need to focus on what is right, not just for humans but also for our environment and everything in it.

  • Ian Travers

    Like GB, I have high hopes for thorium. If only the technological difficulties can be overcome, its potential benefits in addition to producing ‘clean, green’ electricity are very attractive.
    And like Omar Saeed, I have long wondered why we haven’t majored on small-scale conventional nuclear generation when it has proved so successful in maritime, particularly submarine, applications.

  • Andy Meek CEng MNucI

    My take on this is that the government has woken up at last (but too late) to the warning from the engineers that the lights are going out in 2017 ie a continual rolling programme of power cuts caused by insufficient generating capacity. Should have invested in reliable base load capacity (nuclear) starting ten years ago. No time now before 2017 so panic investment in fracking. No one wants contaminated water or air of course … Let’s hope they find suitable sites in Tory constituencies! We can’t trust gas from Russia, Oil from Middle East, coal too dirty, wind too unreliable, solar too expensive, tidal expensive and limited suitable locations, wave power inefficient, hydro electric dams limited by UK geography, waste combustion limited scale potential, geothermal not for most of UK geology. Have I missed any? The root cause of this crisis is the political commitment to a privatised generating industry. When we had a Central Electricity Generating Board, all this long term planning (including a diverse, balanced supply mix) was undertaken in a coherent way by professionals committed to the national interest.

  • Dr Graham R Smith

    I have mixed feelings and reservations about the whole Nuclear question. I recently got into a debate about those who have and those who don’t have the nuclear capability, it is clear at the moment that there are elements in this world that would like to use nuclear as a threat to humanity, whereas others see it as the salvation of humanity. I personally believe that we are treading a very fine line here, if we give everybody the opportunity of nuclear, there is a distinct possibility that someone will use it for non peaceful means, if we don’t give it and still restrict usage those element of society will find a way to use it for non peaceful means. If anything happens then the whole of humanity will suffer, it won’t be about making sure that investors get a ROI, it will be about survival of the Human Race. We have certainly come a long way since the Nuclear age came about, but in these time with so many different elements out there wishing to bring about ultimate destruction of the Human race, it’s not really for me. I know my comment do not really reflect an answer to the question, but it has to be said.

    • Ken Adams

      Apart from nuclear war, it seems to me that there are two major threats to the survival of the human race. The first is the risk of nuclear accidents in a world covered with nuclear power stations, and the the second is the risk of catastrophic climate change in a world which waits too long before it covers itself with nuclear power stations. Catch-22?

    • Gunnar Fernqvist

      I don’t undeestand why the nuclear debate is always full of exaggerations. Any nuclear accident, however probable or improbable, is certainly not about the survival of the human race so why say that? Hiroshima was tragic, but any nuclear accident is certain to be of less impact. Chernobyl was made by people experimenting, something that can be covered with proper safety procedures. If we instead of debating faced the inevitable energy crisis and worked on solutions, we could solve all these problems. But it will require massive investments and efforts. Now, here is a task for the european union if there ever was one, instead of legislating on cheese making and other irritating subjects.

  • GB

    Thorium looks (to me) to be one of the better solutions. Cleaner, much safer, more abundant.

    • Ron

      I have the same feeling. I would like to know more about why and how the thorium option was sidelined in favour of uranium-based technologies, who hold the information (and any patents?) relating to the thorium-based option, and how many years it would take to develop and commission large-scale thorium-based reactors. And I think the population at large – in UK and around the world – would be interested…

      • Jolyon Kay

        The Uranium route was adopted because it produced plutonium for weapons.

        • Steve K

          Got it in one. And now we are too scared to try a different route – never mind that it has already been successfully trialled, albeit small scale. Surely LFTR should be given a chance – we have enough places to create weapons grade material, why not try producing power as the primary objective.

  • Omar Saeed

    I think nuclear should be part of the future energy mix but not in its current form (large scale reactors). Perhaps small modular reactors of 300MW or less would be the correct way to go? They could theoretically provide similarly priced power and dramatically reduce construction costs over time given that it could be possible to make SMRs in a factory setting. @osaeed87

    • J Alun Shorney

      I agree with Omar’s comments. the size of a reactor needs to be commensurate with the size of other generators on the system. I believe that National Grid can only just cope with the loss of 600MW generators but what of the future 1GW+ generators! These are too big.