How much nuclear power does the UK use and is it safe?

Is it safe to use nuclear power in the UK? By Michael Race
BBC News, Business Reporter Published 17 hours ago

Image source, Rolls-Royce

Rolls-Royce receives more than PS400m in private investment and government funding to develop small nuclear reactors.

What does nuclear power have to do with the UK's climate change goals?

What is Rolls-Royce’s smaller nuclear reactor, and how does it work?

SMRs are small modular reactors that work on a smaller scale than conventional nuclear reactors.

Rolls-Royce claims that one SMR would take up approximately two football pitches. It is about a tenth the size of conventional nuclear plants and would power around one million homes.

Although the company has not yet announced where SMRs will be built if they are approved, it is expected that production will be concentrated in the UK's north, where there is already nuclear expertise.

What is the UK's nuclear power?

According to the UK government, 16% of Britain’s electricity comes from nuclear power generated by 13 reactors.

It wants to see around 25% of Britain's energy come from nuclear by 2025.

According to the government's plan for "net-zero" carbon emissions by 2050, nuclear power is a "reliable source low-carbon electricity".

The government, aside from SMRs has supported Hinkley C's construction in Somerset. It will deliver 7% of the UK’s electricity and be Britain's largest nuclear station.

A proposal for a nuclear power plant along the Suffolk coast, also known as Sizewell C, has been made. However, these have not yet been approved by the authorities and there are still objections from local residents.

Who uses nuclear power in the world?

According to the World Nuclear Industry Status report, there were 415 nuclear reactors operating in 33 countries by mid-2021. This does not include nuclear submarines and military reactors.

The "big five" nuclear nations - the US and China, France, Russia and South Korea – generated 72% of the global nuclear power in 2020.

According to the industry report, nuclear's share in the global energy market is declining steadily.

Two countries, Belarus and United Arab Emirates, however, have started their first reactors in the last year.

Is nuclear power safe

According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (part of the United Nations), nuclear power plants are "the most secure and safest facilities in the world".

They must meet stringent international safety standards.

Source: Getty Images

However, there have been high-profile incidents in which large quantities of radioactive material were accidentally released into the atmosphere.

An explosion at Chernobyl's nuclear power plant resulted in the 1986 nuclear disaster that was the worst. In 2011, the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan was flooded by a tsunami that resulted from an earthquake.

Even in normal conditions, nuclear power can produce radioactive waste that is dangerous and must be managed safely.

A House of Lords paper, dated October, stated that the UK's nuclear waste issue remains unresolved.

It is currently stored in temporary facilities that aren't designed to store "high-level radioactive waste".

According to the paper, the government prefers "geological disposal", which would involve placing waste deep within a rock formation that would stop radioactivity from escaping.

However, so far, this facility has not been offered to any community.

What is the 'greenest' use of nuclear power?

Uranium and plutonium are the main nuclear fuels. A controlled "chain reaction," which produces heat, is what happens in a nuclear power plant. This heat then drives turbines and creates electricity.

Nuclear power stations don't produce greenhouse gases, unlike fossil fuels. One kilogram of nuclear fuel can produce millions more energy than one kilogram of coal.

Image caption: Nuclear power critics want more investment in renewable energy sources

Nuclear fuels, however, are not renewable energy resources like fossil fuels.

New nuclear plants, of any size, also produce emissions. This is due to the production of large quantities of steel and other raw materials.

It is not yet clear what the long-term environmental effects of nuclear waste disposal will be.

Critics argue that government investments should be focused on renewable power such as solar panels and wind turbines, rather than new nuclear capacity.

Why is nuclear power so costly?

It is extremely costly to build nuclear power plants. Rolls-Royce's lower design is one reason why the government supports it.

SMRs are estimated to cost around PS2bn compared to large-scale plants like Hinkley Point C which could cost PS23bn.

The government is hopeful that a new model of financial financing could reduce the cost of nuclear power projects.

It does however mean that electricity customers might have to pay a portion of the new scheme's costs upfront through their energy bills.

These arrangements are believed to have bolstered support for the Sizewell C plant.