Can nuclear power solve the energy crisis?
What’s holding up the UK government’s strategy for securing the country’s energy supply in light of the Russia-Ukraine war and soaring market prices of oil and gas? According to The Guardian, a split between the prime minister, Boris Johnson, and chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak, over proposals for new nuclear reactors.
Johnson has told industry figures that he wants nuclear power to meet 25% of the UK’s energy demand by 2050, up from 16% today. That would mean roughly 30 gigawatts (GW) from a source that is currently set to shrink to 3.6GW by 2030, as all but one of the UK’s eight plants are due to be decommissioned by the end of the decade.
Sunak is reported to be unhappy with the £13 billion price tag attached to eight new nuclear reactors. But Open University’s professor of energy William Nuttall argues new reactors are worth the upfront cost for the part they can play on an all-renewable grid:
Large nuclear power stations have huge turbine generators spinning at high speed. These hold their speed in the face of small national fluctuations [in energy supply], providing stability to the grid. A constant base supply of nuclear power could continue to meet demand when renewable generation falters because the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining.
Nuclear power generation can be dialed up to cover gaps in supply from renewable sources, a job that coal and gas generators are often called upon to do now. Another low-carbon way to do this is to build batteries big enough to store the electricity generated by green sources.
More bang for your buck with batteries?
While the falling costs of solar and wind energy continue to exceed expectations, nuclear construction projects remain expensive behemoths with “a history of cost overruns … around the world” argue MV Ramana and Xiao Wei, experts in security and energy supply at the University of British Columbia in Canada.
We’re researchers who have examined the economics of electricity generation in Ontario, and we’ve demonstrated that as the costs of batteries decline, the cost of supplying electricity using a combination of renewables and battery storage would be cheaper than using nuclear power.