Reviewing the role of nuclear in a net zero future
Professor Francis Livens, Director of Dalton Nuclear Institute discusses why the UK needs to adopt a level playing field approach to review the role of nuclear and the newly published roadmap to help deliver it.
The UK has set a world–leading net zero target but setting the target is not enough – we need to achieve it.
Net zero by 2050 is such a massive challenge for this country that it is really all hands to the pumps. I think it’s very easy to get sucked into ‘windmills are bad because they’re intermittent’, ‘nuclear is bad because of waste and accidents’, but the reality is we need to explore all these options and evaluate them on a level playing field with the acknowledgement that they will not be adopted unless they are part of an optimised solution.
The net zero challenge
Electricity production is only around 20% of total UK energy demand, and complete replacement of carbon fuels requires enormous change in the whole system. Last year’s energy white paper outlines possible roles for renewables, gas with carbon capture and storage, and nuclear. As these technologies become better understood, their significance may change. Ruling out potentially useful options could hinder progress unnecessarily. The UK needs to urgently develop the ability to compare honestly and objectively different technologies, both nuclear and non-nuclear, across their whole life cycle.
Our newly published Nuclear energy for net zero: a strategy for action is an impartial roadmap, outlining eight recommended action points for an objective assessment considering the environment, the economy and the net zero challenge.Professor Francis Livens / Director of Dalton Nuclear Institute
Nuclear power and hydrogen
Hydrogen is an attractive option for hard-to-decarbonise sectors and could have a transformative role in the decarbonisation of transport and domestic heating. However, production through electrolysis (using electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen) even using the most established process, is inefficient and expensive.
This is where advanced nuclear could provide a radical option. Advanced nuclear reactors can produce much higher temperatures than the 300°C or so of conventional ones, which allow you to bypass the inefficiencies of electricity generation and use the reactor heat to drive processes like thermal decomposition of water directly. It’s a game-changing option and we’ve developed a roadmap outlining the steps needed to explore this.
Time to deliver
If advanced nuclear is to play a part, development needs to start now to give enough time to demonstrate effectiveness by the early 2030s, ready for rapid deployment.
This compressed timescale severely limits our choice of nuclear technology, meaning only High Temperature Gas-cooled Reactors (HTGR) are a realistic option, delivery of which requires consistent leadership and commitment.
In addition, the UK needs to be able to manage and operate the whole fuel cycle. HTGR technology uses different fuels from conventional reactors and HTGR fuel is unlikely to be recycled. But could this present an opportunity? Could the UK become world leaders in fuel recycling?
Other challenges in need to be considered such as: the tension between seeking ever higher temperatures and the materials design challenges; and addressing public perception as HTGRs are deployed close to towns. The fact that the government has opened up the regulatory assessment process to advanced nuclear technologies, however, is a welcome first step.
The government needs to have access to competent advice on all aspects of the energy system and, in the case of HTGRs, there is an urgent need for evaluation and a decision.
If HTGRs have a part to play, then their relative immaturity presents the UK with an opportunity for growth. Building maybe tens of HTGRs in the UK is a strong foundation for a UK industry. We have an R&D base, we can make fuel, and we have the chance to reinvigorate the high-quality manufacturing needed, all capabilities currently focused in the north-west of England and north Wales.
While the potential impact of HTGR has not been quantified, the proposed and complementary UK SMR (Small Modular Reactor) programme, which is comparable in scale, is estimated to offer as many as 40,000 jobs, with the further benefit of supporting the levelling up agenda.
Our newly published Nuclear energy for net zero: a strategy for action is an impartial roadmap, outlining eight recommended action points for an objective assessment considering the environment, the economy and the net zero challenge.
Professor Francis Livens
Director of the Dalton Nuclear Institute and a member of both the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority Board and the Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory Board where he advises government and the Office of Nuclear Regulation Independent Advisory Panel.
View Professor Francis Livens' research profile
Download the position paper
Download the Nuclear energy for net zero: a strategy for action position paper by Dalton Nuclear Institute.
Download (PDF, 651KB).
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