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A nuclear future

Francis Livens

Nuclear power is on the national agenda – and the University is helping to make it a safe and efficient part of our essential energy mix. Dalton Nuclear Institute's Interim Director Professor Francis Livens explains why nuclear has made a comeback – and what challenges our research is helping to address.

Despite being known for moving incredibly slowly, the UK's nuclear landscape has seen massive changes in the last few years.

Just over ten years ago nuclear energy wasn't even on the agenda; by 2008 the government was asserting (within some constraints) that it would be an integral part of the UK's energy future.

Nuclear power's reputation for being costly, however, remains as well founded as ever. Each new reactor costs several billion pounds and clean up of the UK's nuclear legacy to date will cost over £100 billion... So how did nuclear energy get back on the agenda?

First, greenhouse gas emissions are becoming increasingly unacceptable, which means we have to move away from fossil fuels. Second, North Sea oil and gas production is at (if not past) its peak; and third, without substantial developments in technology, the large-scale use of coal is just too polluting.

Nuclear energy is only used in electricity production, which accounts for just one fifth of total UK energy consumption. Currently around 18% of electricity is produced by nuclear energy, and there are arguments that this should rise to 20-25%.

Fossil-fuelled transport currently accounts for about a third of the UK's total energy use. If we can decarbonise transport in the future, that will transform the energy picture considerably.

To do this, we'll either need huge amounts of electricity to power electric transport, or we'll need to manufacture hydrogen, which requires a great deal of energy.

Plans to close all coal-fired power plants by 2025, combined with the majority of the country's ageing nuclear fleet reaching the end of its operational life – and growing electricity demand – leave the UK facing an electricity supply gap regardless of whether we opt for electric vehicles.

One option to deliver all this extra energy is a new nuclear build.

The Government needs to grapple with huge, long-term considerations, and at the moment – quite sensibly – is trying to keep its options open and consider a range of scenarios for nuclear in the coming years. These scenarios range from a massive nuclear programme, involving 40-50 reactors, to a complete withdrawal from nuclear and a programme entirely focused on clean-up and waste management.

Against this backdrop, the University is helping to answer the big nuclear energy questions. What is the role of nuclear technology in the future – big reactors, or a more localised system, such as small modular reactors?

How will power be distributed? And how will nuclear reactors be integrated with intermittent renewable sources such as wind or solar?

How should existing nuclear waste be retrieved, stored safely, and disposed of responsibly?

How can the public be reassured?

Watch this space – it's going to be interesting, whatever decisions are made.

Francis Livens - Interim Director of The University of Manchester's Dalton Nuclear Institute

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