Being “nuclear-free” is nothing to be proud of

Steven Young

October 22, 2021

On October 10th, former Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood tweeted ‘Wales is now nuclear-free. Let’s keep it that way’. The tweet included a link to an article she wrote for The National (the Welsh one, not the Scottish one), entitled ‘Wales needs to forget nuclear power forever’. This is an odd position for someone who calls herself an environmentalist. 

Wood was presumably responding to the news from a few months ago that the Welsh government is choosing to resurrect Trawsfynydd nuclear power station using small modular reactors. These reactors are smaller than conventional reactors and can be largely manufactured in factories before being shipped to power stations to be installed. Until this happens though, Wales is indeed nuclear free, and the UK as a whole is not far off, with all but one of our nuclear reactors being shut down this decade, and only three new reactors scheduled to replace them.  

The current energy crisis has been brought on by various factors, including an over-reliance on insufficient renewable energy technology, and a short-sighted rejection of natural gas by President Biden. Another factor has been the Ofgem energy price cap which has forced many energy suppliers out of business, thus reducing competition and making things worse for customers. Again, government intervention in the market has backfired spectacularly. In this context, the UK needs a reliable alternative to the renewables that are not good enough and the fossil fuels that we want to move away from. Nuclear power is that alternative. 

Despite what Leanne Wood might say, nuclear energy is a safe and clean source of energy that has proven to be effective. France sources 70 per cent of its energy from nuclear, which has made it the largest net exporter of electricity in Europe. Deaths associated with nuclear energy, including from disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima, are dwarfed by fossil fuel-related deaths. And nuclear produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than even solar and wind power.

Leanne Wood is not happy with this, however. She lists safety and waste disposal as major concerns around nuclear energy. As discussed above, nuclear energy is much safer than fossil fuels, and as safe as renewables, but Wood still invokes the memories of Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Britain’s own Windscale, to discourage the adoption of nuclear power. Chernobyl was a result of an isolated socialist state using a flawed design and insufficiently trained personnel. Windscale occurred because we did not have the same knowledge of radiation in 1957 that we do today. Fukushima was the result of a tsunami. Today, physicists are more knowledgeable about radiation, governments are much more safety conscious around nuclear energy, and the chances of a tsunami hitting the UK are miniscule. 

Concerns about waste material produced by nuclear power are also inaccurate. Nuclear power will produce 5.1 million tonnes of waste over the next century, while UK homes and businesses produce 5.3 million tonnes of waste every year. The High-Level Waste that is more radioactive is stored in substances that effectively insulate it and prevent radiation spilling out. The radioactivity of this waste means that it decays quickly, so it does not have to be stored for long. The Low-Level Waste lasts longer but is safer and can be stored easily. Innovation is the key to dealing with nuclear waste, so waste is a poor reason not to use this safe and clean energy source. 

A lack of sufficient grid inertia produced by renewables, as well as the cost of adapting our transmissions grid to support these methods, make a complete switch to renewables wholly inviable for the UK’s energy needs. This switch would also force us to rely on a secondary energy supplier, given that the wind does not always blow, and the sunshine does not always reach us. The secondary energy supplier is either going to be nuclear power or, more likely right now, fossil fuels. A shift away from nuclear in reaction to Fukushima led Germany to fossil fuels imported from Russia.  

The UK, including Wales, must make a choice. Since renewables are insufficient to meet our energy needs, as we have seen recently, we must decide whether to embrace nuclear energy, continue burning fossil fuels, or do a bit of both. Renewables need support, and these are the only options for doing so. Nuclear power is virtually emissions-free, so if we want to stop putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, then being nuclear-free is most certainly nothing to celebrate. 

Author

Written by Steven Young

Steven Young is Policy Researcher at the British Conservation Alliance

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