Nuclear power has big role to play in powering UK

Published on Thursday, 15 March 2012 10:07
Posted by Scott Buckler

An urgent remodelling of the UK’s energy infrastructure is vital if the country wants to decarbonise without “the lights going out” and not be reliant on imported energy supplies, says a new report by the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment (SSEE) at the University of Oxford

“Towards a low carbon pathway for the UK” emphasises the need to remodel our infrastructure between now and 2025 to redress the balance between energy security and decarbonisation. Following up on last year’s report, “A low carbon nuclear future,” SSEE’s latest research highlights how, with the right strategy, a £100bn world-leading nuclear industry, providing over 75,000 jobs and guaranteeing a consistent, safe energy supply, while still meeting long term carbon emission targets, can be achieved.

“Towards a low carbon pathway for the UK” explores two key aspects of the UK’s energy landscape:  the future delivery of low carbon energy and the initial moves towards a new build programme, and the more immediate first steps of safely and cost efficiently dealing with the UK’s plutonium inventory.

Professor Sir David King, Director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment at the University of Oxford comments: “If we are to ensure we have a safe, secure and affordable supply of energy as we move through the century we need a coherent strategy that allows the UK to develop a full suite of low carbon energy sources.  It is clear from our study that nuclear must play an important part in the energy mix but to do so requires a long term pathway and critical insights.

“The recent announcements on the Franco-British Accord and the desire to create a long-term strategy for nuclear up to and beyond 2050 are welcome, but we need to address the fundamental issue that energy provision is generally a 100 year programme and requires not just a long-term view, but skills and the science base to support it.”

Whilst nuclear new build is essential, with a quarter of the UK’s current generating capacity coming to the end of its life over the next ten years, the report highlights that we must also deal with the legacy issues that have been with us for many years. Failure to do so could have a detrimental effect on the whole nuclear industry in the UK. Furthermore, if we are to retain public support for nuclear as a key part of our future energy mix, then we have to demonstrate that lessons have been learnt and that there is in place a coherent policy framework which will capitalise on the opportunities and benefits on offer.

UK Nuclear Development Timeline 1950 – 2012 & onwards

An enormous challenge in meeting future electricity demand is anticipated with the predicted electrification of transport and heating increasing demand by 100% by 2050. To ensure we can keep the lights on and meet our low carbon energy targets, it will be essential to use greater levels of nuclear power.  This will require either much higher uranium reserves than currently identified, or a change of fuel cycle to minimise uranium use.

Using the UK plutonium inventory to manufacture MOX (mixed oxide) fuel is the Government’s ‘minded to’ position. Coupled with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s stance on reprocessing spent fuel from advanced gas-cooled reactors the de facto UK policy on nuclear would, therefore, be the recycling of plutonium and uranium as fuel.

The structure of the UK nuclear industry, however, is currently aligned more towards the ‘no nuclear’ stance of 2003 than the ‘new build’ stance of 2012 and the report points out the clear need for some form of independent body to advise on long-term nuclear strategy and options.

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