What are the challenges with using nuclear in the energy transition?

What’s happening? Five countries, including the US, the UK, Japan, Canada and France, have formed an alliance to develop shared supply chains for nuclear fuel. The move is designed to push Russia out of the international nuclear energy market and strengthen the UK’s nuclear energy sector as it works towards energy independence and reducing bills, according to the UK Energy Department. The fuel is used in nuclear power stations which currently provide about 15% of the UK’s electricity supply, the government aims for this to reach 25% by 2050. (The Independent)

Why does this matter? Despite the rapid scale-up of renewables in recent years, it’s uncertain whether wind and solar will be able to grow fast enough to meet net-zero targets amid increasing electricity demand.

The role of nuclear in UK’s climate strategy – Nuclear power plays a key role in the UK’s energy transition – in its latest net-zero strategy, the UK reiterated its plan to set up Great British Nuclear. One of the programme’s first jobs will involve launching a competition to select the best small modular reactor technologies.

The government said it wants the UK to be one of the world’s best places to invest in civil nuclear power and that it is taking measures to revitalise the UK’s nuclear industry. The government also plans to deliver a programme of new nuclear projects beyond Hinkley Point C and Sizewell C to create certainty for the sector.

The UK recently partnered with South Korea to build nuclear supply chains and share developments in advanced civil nuclear technologies. China is currently the leader in nuclear expertise – since 2019, almost 90% of new nuclear power plants have been Russian or Chinese.

Increasing demand for nuclear – The construction of nuclear power plants surged in Europe and North America during the 1960s and 1970s but has been relatively stagnant since then. However, factors such as the energy crisis, the lack of top-quality land for renewables and the ability to scale-up renewables fast enough may accelerate the construction of nuclear power plants. Policy decisions can help with scaling nuclear – the US Inflation Reduction Act, for instance, provides a tax credit for the production of zero-emission nuclear power in the US.

Possible obstacles – Building nuclear power plants in Western countries comes with its own set of challenges – since countries have gone decades without new projects there has been a loss of skill and capabilities. There is also a limited industrial base for materials, systems and components, these issues mean new projects in Western countries could face significant delays.

Emerging technologies could reduce some of these issues – small modular reactors are smaller in size and have a simpler design which could reduce construction times. This is a significant contrast to the nuclear reactors of the past which were large, complex and costly projects that often took decades to finish.

The importance of affordable financing – The inclusion of nuclear within the EU’s green taxonomy will allow the industry to access affordable financing. This will reduce project costs and help nuclear remain competitive with other energy sources. However, the European Commission is facing legal action from the likes of Greenpeace, Client Earth and WWF for including gas and nuclear in its green taxonomy.

Not for everyone – In contrast to the UK’s plan to expand nuclear power, Germany recently switched off its last three remaining nuclear reactors. The nuclear power plants are now likely to be dismantled. The German government said that the nation will have to rely more heavily on coal and natural gas to meet its energy needs

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