Summative essay

Is Britain’s future nuclear?

This essay revolves around nuclear power and the simple question of whether our future will inevitably be nuclear. In the past we’ve seen catastrophic events relating to nuclear power and yet the concept is rapidly growing in popularity locally, and internationally. I will explore this through looking at the benefits and negatives of nuclear power and the long-term consequences of ignoring it as an alternative. Is there a substitution for nuclear power, and why are we not supporting it? I have always lived next to a decommissioned nuclear station and thought nuclear power was a thing of the past, a recent opening of another nuclear station nearby made me question its practicality, and the significance of a nuclear future when technological research is booming. This makes me wonder what exactly happened to British nuclear power, during the 1950s to 1980s Britain were self-sufficient with Magnox producing their nuclear energy utilising home grown developed technology. During this time cooled systems were used, however advances in the 1980s proved light water reactors to be the way forward. In the 1990s the British government moved towards a non-nuclear policy, placing greater reliance on renewable energy. Conversely, around 2004 it was decided nuclear power was required to make up part of the United Kingdom’s energy mix, despite this the building of new nuclear power stations within Britain has only recently resumed.

For some nuclear power will always be a catastrophic disadvantage to our world, we have all heard and seen how expensive and unsafe it can be to produce this power. Events regarding nuclear accidents have been occurring since the late 1950s. The worst in Britain was on the 7th of October 1957; a Windscale nuclear reactor in Cumbria caught fire, milk from nearby farms was banned from sale for a month. The reactor could not be salvaged and was buried in concrete to prevent further nuclear leakage. Today the site has been renamed Sellafield where new nuclear reactors have been built, according to the companies website it will take 110 years to finish their remediation programme; which will clean up the Sellafield site to the agreed end-state as stated in the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. Nuclear waste remains radioactive and is hazardous to health for thousands of years, it can be reprocessed to extract nuclear fuel or encased in glass and left deep underground but this does not solve the problem. We already have 2 million cubic meters of nuclear waste and will need to spend £70 billion on cleaning up expected waste which we are planning to produce. These figures are astounding, how can the UK government support such expensive and dangerous methods of producing power when the national debt is growing at a rate of £5,170 per second and expected to top 4.8 trillion in the near future? On average, it takes 5 – 10 years to construct a nuclear power plant and they have an average life span of 60 years. There are several conditions to be completed before planning consent is granted, often the sternest opposition is provided by local people. They are most vulnerable to small radiation leaks which can cause devastating effects, symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and fatigue. Green peace is a non-governmental, environmental organization which is against nuclear power, their Manifesto states ‘We defend the natural world and promote peace by investigating, exposing and confronting environmental abuse, and championing environmentally responsible solutions’ (GreenPeace 2010). One of the main advantages of nuclear power is that it doesn’t produce Carbon dioxide or sulfur dioxide, Green peace believe that if Britain built ten new reactors, Nuclear power can only deliver 4% cut in carbon emissions after 2025, this is too little too late at too high price. Nuclear power can’t replace heating and hot water for industrial purposes which is where it would be most beneficial, nuclear power can only replace electricity but only 14% of our power supply is used for electricity so having nuclear power which only creates electricity is irrelevant.         Recent political events regarding America’s new president Donald Trump and North Korea hit a realization in every one of the national risk of producing nuclear energy, it gives us the power to produce weapons which could devastate a country in seconds. These countries have been targets for militants and terrorist organizations which raises major concerns for our security.

One substitute to nuclear power could be renewable energy which is a natural source of energy that is not depleted by use, such as water, wind or solar power. ‘Renewables are ready to take over from nuclear. In fact, we could be producing 100% of our energy from renewables by 2050, and the technology is already ready for market – particularly if the subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear are cut’ (Debating Europe, undated). This could be a huge mile stone to keep our world clean for the future. Big power plants waste 2/3 of their energy through lost heat from the cooling towers, this waste could be used to warm millions of houses. According to Green peace to achieve this we need to build smaller power plant which are closer to where the heat will be used, these are called combine heat and power plants (CHP) they are also much quieter which is a huge advantage for convincing local residents. They are successfully using this method in Southampton which heats homes and large businesses and provides air conditioning in the summer. These users receive financial benefits; 5-10% reduction in energy bills. The main benefit of CHP is that green fuels such as wood waste or straw can be used. Britain is surrounded by ocean which could produce 12% of our electricity need if suitably invested in and developed. If we combine all raw renewable energy it can produce twice as much electricity compared to nuclear with shorter lag times between planning and production. It’s clear that there is a strong case for using renewable energy, which makes it all the more difficult to understand why the government would still support nuclear power. There has only been £1 billion investment into researching renewable energy, this doesn’t compare to the support that nuclear power has received of many years. Even with the lack of support for renewables thus far, we have seen strong growth in electricity generated from renewable sources especially from 2014 to 2015 where there was a significant increase of 30%.

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Generation output from renewable sources increased by 30% from 2014 to 2015 (2016)

Cost is a factor which sometimes is used to argue against renewable sources. Renewables rely on conditions outside our control so it’s impossible to produce accurate figures for cost/production only an estimation. Nonetheless, considering nuclear waste will be an ongoing problem for thousands of years it’s inevitable it will cost future generations greatly. Renewable energy produces little to no waste products such as carbon dioxide or other chemical pollutants, and has minimal impact on the environment. Within a few years wind and solar power are expected to succeed where nuclear technology never has and become fully competitive with fossil fuels. Taken together with other renewable technologies they offer the most affordable option for the energy future of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. Locally around my home town in North Wales I have seen many off-shore wind farm developments, highlighting the continuing progress of renewable energy. Additionally a solar farm at Kinmel Bay by the A55 coastal road has recently been completed, which covering 100 acers with the capacity to provide power for in excess of 5,000 homes and create over 100 jobs. These are clear indicators that there is no need for nuclear power, renewable energy is a much safer and eco-friendly option which will benefit everyone.

The biggest problem we have with energy is that we can’t store it; it’s a huge disadvantage to renewable energy as we can’t predict how much energy will be produced at any given time. Renewable energy is dependent on the weather for its energy source, our most common renewable energy sources are hydro power, wind power and solar power which rely on water, wind and sun. The closest we have come to storing renewable energy is pumping water up and down mountains but around 30% of the total energy produced is lost by this process. These resources are highly unpredictable and inconsistent making it very difficult for them to generate the equal quantity of power to nuclear power. To supply the energy demands of a large industrialised economy, a large scale reliable energy source is required. As renewable energy uses new technology, it has an extremely large capital cost, plants require upfront investments to build, have high maintenance expenses and require careful planning and implementation. Furthermore there is also the aspect of delivering this energy to towns and cities which adds the additional cost of installing power lines. This is one of the main reasons which prevent the expansion of clean energy compared to non-renewable sources of energy. Some have argued that there is a constant supply of tidal energy but as there is with every renewable energy source there is a high capital investment. There is also a limit on the number of locations suitable to support tidal power as it requires sizable tides to be efficacious. It’s also a huge disadvantage to marine life, it leads to disruption in movement and growth of fish and other marine life, there is a danger of fish and larger marine mammals passing through turbines which could be lethal. Although the tide is constant, severe storms can be devastating on the tidal power equipment, especially those placed on the sea floor.

Locally there has been a lot of debate against renewable energy, especially wind power, Snowdonia is known for its beautiful scenery but wind turbines could become a huge eyesore and detract from the natural beauty of the landscape. Take Gwynt y Môr wind farm off the coast of Llandudno as an example, the original proposals of the farm took 12 years and had to be scaled down due to campaigners and councillors worrying about the effect on tourism and the sea scape, during that time the first minister, Carwyn Jones, was scathing about the decision, ‘it had created an “atmosphere of uncertainty”. Mr Jones called it a “complete and utter mess”. He has written to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), saying the decision was “ludicrous” with no consultation.’ (BBC News Wales, 2015) This wind farm covered an area of 31 square miles and has an offshore substation weighing 1,500 tonnes. Llandudno is the third most popular destination in Wales for tourism, perhaps it would have been reasonable to place the farm in a quieter destination.

Britain currently has 15 nuclear reactors currently generating power: Dounreay, Hunterston, Torness, Heysham, Wylfa, Sizewell, Dungeness and Hinkley. They are also a number of nuclear weapon, and submarine sites; evidence that there is a strong nuclear community in Britain, including relations with the Unites States.

Nuclear power will always carry controversy thanks to safety concerns after catastrophic accidents such as Fukushima. All nuclear accidents have happened at older plants; Fukushima was an exceptional accident caused by an earthquake which created a tsunami, this kind of event is very unlikely in Europe, especially in the UK. Modern nuclear reactor design has built in significantly more safety features as nuclear technology has grown popular once again over the past few years. The potential for nuclear to solve all of our energy needs mean it’s a valuable are of research which could guarantee clean energy, for many this makes it worth investing in the technology.

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        Map of nuclear activity in Britain

The main advantage to nuclear power compared to fossil fuels is that it creates little or no greenhouse gases. Electricity generated by plants powered by coal or gas emit vast quantities of carbon dioxide, water vapour and other compounds into the atmosphere, during 2015 to 2016 the use of coal decreased however this was compensated by increasing the use of gas. Renewable energy isn’t ready to take over from nuclear power, alternatives such as coal and natural gas over the long term are much more polluting and damaging than nuclear. While listening to Radio 4 segment on Britain’s nuclear future the chairman of nuclear innovation and concerns Dame Sue Ion was on the show, she was asked by Evan Davis the presenter ‘Are you satisfied that essentially these technologies are safe enough?’ “Absolutely, we have our national regulator, the office of regulation and they would not permission anything that wasn’t safe, all these reactors go through international safety assessments and are the best in the world in terms of their attitude and application of the required safety” (Sue Ion, Britain’s nuclear future) Also on the show was Chief executive of Horizon Nuclear Power; Duncan Hawthorne, Horizon are building the new nuclear station at ‘Yr Wylfa’ using Hitachi technology, he was asked if Britain really needs nuclear, “I don’t think people realize that nuclear has provided in the UK about 16% of our power for years, we’ve got these 15 reactors we’ve relied on heavily for the reliable base load, so the real issue now is that those plants that have served us so well need to be replaced, and you ask yourself what technology is out there that can do the same job” (Duncan Hawthorne, Britain’s nuclear future) he was also asked the most common question arguing against nuclear power which is ‘Why can some countries live without nuclear power and why can’t we? Germany recently announced that they’re shutting down nuclear power and their industry is much bigger than ours, they claim to rely mainly on solar power but Duncan explained that when they run out of energy they import power from Europe which ironically incudes nuclear power from countries such as France.

Both cases for and against nuclear power are quite strong and it’s challenging to trust and believe some information as both sides can appear heavily biased towards their own agendas. At the outset of this essay my view of nuclear power was highly negative, the only time we ever hear about nuclear power is to remind us of the catastrophes it has caused with upsetting documentaries or usually protestors against new sites being opened. This was my main reason for researching this topic as I was surprised in the growth of nuclear power. Locally I’ve seen the rise of renewable energy being used, many new housing developments have been built with solar panels. Even at my own home we have installed solar panels on our roof which is indicative of the public interest and growth in renewable energy being used; despite this, I feel a lot more could be done. As we’ve been using Nuclear power for years I feel as if it’s the lazy option for the government to support it. I understand that renewable energy is the most expensive option for us currently but in the long term it would undoubtedly prove to be the most beneficial. I can’t imagine the cost financially and environmentally if nuclear waste continues to build up, it clearly would have to be dealt with at some point. After my research, I feel comfortable towards our safety regarding nuclear power, I trust that the technology has developed enough to ensure that security is paramount, however is enough thought being given to the long term effects of nuclear generation? I believe that it would be a mistake to rely solely on nuclear power for our energy demands, which is what I think the government appears to be heading towards. The majority of research, development and implementation should still be directed towards progress in renewable energy generation to reduce the use of nuclear power. Although currently it is not 100% sustainable to rely on green energy sources at this moment, I have confidence that through technological development this could be achievable. In the short term nuclear power can be used to supplement the energy requirements of the UK, supporting and reliably delivering energy for economic recovery. To conclude and answer the question, ‘Is our future nuclear?’ I believe it will be in the short term; it’s vital for our countries security but hopefully not for our energy moving forward.

 

Bibliography

 

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BBC Radio 4 (2017) Britain’s nuclear future [Online] [Accessed 10/04/17] available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08k4h1c [Podcast]

Debating Europe [Online] Available at: http://www.debatingeurope.eu/focus/infobox-arguments-for-and-against-nuclear/#.WNLZNWiLTIV [Accessed 9/3/17]

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Green peace blog (2008) Bex,The case against nuclear power [Online] Available at: http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/blog/nuclear/the-case-against-nuclear-power-20080108 [Accessed 9/3/17]

Green peace blog (2008) Bex, The convenient solution [Online] Available at: http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/blog/climate/the-convenient-solution-20070718 [Accessed 9/3/17]

Dr. Thiemo Gropp (2013) Nuclear is not the solution to the energy challenge, it is part of the problem [Online] http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/newsdesk/energy/analysis/nuclear-not-solution-energy-challenge-it-part-problem

 Generation output from renewable sources increased by 30% from 2014 to 2015 (2016) [Image] http://www.energy-uk.org.uk/publication.html?task=file.download&id=5934 [Accessed 03/05/17]

 Abhishek Shah (2011) Disadvantage of Renewable Energy – Drawbacks of Different Alternative Energy Sources (1/04/11) [Online] Available at: http://www.greenworldinvestor.com/2011/04/01/disadvantages-of-renewable-energy-drawbacks-of-different-alternative-energy-sources/ [Accessed 05/05/17]

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The advantages and disadvantages of renewable energy [online] http://www.solarschools.net/resources/stuff/advantages_and_disadvantages.aspx [Accessed 10/04/17]

List of Illustrations

Generation output from renewable sources increased by 30% from 2014 to 2015 (2016) [Image] http://www.energy-uk.org.uk/publication.html?task=file.download&id=5934 [Accessed 03/05/17]

Nuclear Britain map (2017) [Image] http://www.cnduk.org/information/item/1331-map [Accessed 08/05/17]

 

 

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