A SENIOR leadership team at The University of Manchester’s Dalton Nuclear Institute has released a position paper outlining key actions needed if nuclear power is to play a part in the UK’s ambition of being net zero by 2050.
The report uses an objective, economic assessment system to see how nuclear could support the net zero target in the context of overall energy usage. It outlines what policymakers and industry need to explore to make informed decisions based on the best economic pathway.
The report says that if the full potential of nuclear is to be realised in achieving net zero, then progress needs to made quickly. New reactor technologies would need to be built by the 2040s, meaning that development should start now.
It notes the importance of a “level playing field” for assessing the roles of different technologies for decarbonisation. Having access to up-to-date information on all aspects of decarbonisation is vital for a thorough analysis, rather than “point scoring” between proponents of different technologies. For example, it notes that CCUS with a natural gas facility would have varying capture efficiency, leading to emissions being either “about the same as nuclear” or “ten times that of nuclear”. Therefore, rigorously updating figures on capture and storage efficiency is crucial to tracking net zero progress. Similarly, monitoring changes in available uranium sources would be important for nuclear energy. It recommends that the Energy Systems Catapult should set up and run transparent “level playing field” models to monitor economic developments.
It notes that nuclear power can generate very polarised views, and recommends that a resource such as a website be established to give clear and unbiased information for all energy sources required to reach net zero.
The report recommends that a suitable advisory body should be engaged to advise the Government on how to move forward with nuclear. It notes that this could be the Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory Board (NIRAB), or a successor.
The Climate Change Committee (CCC) has not considered the wider role that nuclear could have in meeting net zero targets, according to the report. The CCC assumes a fixed electricity price for nuclear of £85/MWh (US$118/MWh) and assumes only using large reactors for electricity. It recommends that CCC explore the possibilities of nuclear further.
Nuclear can also play a role in district heating schemes by using the heat that is not used for electricity. This heat is usually removed from the system as hot water and dispersed via cooling water into the environment or cooling towers into the atmosphere. The report notes there is great potential for this scheme to work in the UK, but the economics need to be studied alongside the development of installation and siting programmes.
The report explores how nuclear could be used for the emerging hydrogen industry. Using heat from a nuclear reactor could be used for hydrogen production via steam methane reforming, but this would not result in a large emissions reduction, as CO2 is still produced during the reforming process. Alternatively, electricity produced from nuclear could produce hydrogen via electrolysis – although this is an expensive process.
Options for siting of new nuclear needs to be carefully studied, such as siting SMRs near population centres to enable district heating, or siting high-temperature-heat reactors adjacent to hydrogen facilities. Stakeholder opinions, particularly those of the communities where reactors will be sited, will be important.
The report assumes that a Gen III+ fleet – nuclear new builds such as Hinkley Point C – and small modular reactor (SMR) fleet would have once-through fuel cycle, where the spent fuel is stored. However next-generation advanced modular reactors can also operate on a closed-fuel cycle, where the spent fuel is reprocessed and used for fuel that can be fed back into the reactor. This process uses more of the energy from uranium, which drives the costs down, while also minimising waste. One of the report’s key recommendations is therefore that R&D into the closed fuel cycle needs to continue in the UK.
Gregg Butler, Head of Strategic Assessment at the Institute and co-author on the report, said: “We have developed this paper because we felt a responsibility as an impartial academic community to support our colleagues in government and industry. The UK has set a world-leading net zero target. But simply setting the target is not enough – we need to achieve it. Now is the time to take key actions which will determine the roles nuclear can play, recognising that they should only be adopted if they contribute to an optimised economic and environmental solution.”
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