Research claims nuclear power could help to reduce emissions

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A report by Manchester University claims nuclear power could contribute significantly to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions in the UK but not without consequences.

The research into the sustainability of nuclear and other electricity options in the UK shows that nuclear power could make a significant contribution to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 2035. However, the report suggests that would require a huge expansion of nuclear, constituting 35 per cent of the electricity mix by 2035, almost double the current contribution. Given that most current nuclear power stations are due to close in this period, this scenario seems unfeasible, the authors claim.

At the same time, they say in a statement that expansion of nuclear power would worsen other sustainability aspects, including depletion of natural resources, ozone-layer depletion, toxicity and health impacts from radiation.

The findings come from the SPRIng research consortium led by Prof Adisa Azapagic at Manchester University. SPRIng looks at the techno-economic, environmental, social and ethical sustainability of nuclear power in the UK.

The SPRIng report also shows that if energy consumption can be reduced significantly, nuclear power is not essential for meeting UK climate-change targets. 

If, however, the consumption of energy continues to grow as it has in the past, the report states the role of nuclear power becomes much more important in meeting climate-change targets.

Expansion of nuclear power will depend on many factors, including the availability of uranium, which is the fuel used in today’s nuclear reactors. Uranium shortages could constrain any significant global expansion of uranium nuclear plants within a few decades unless major uranium reserves can be identified and exploited economically.

Prof Azapagic said: ‘Our research shows that there is no “best” electricity option overall but the choice of sustainable options will depend on individual preferences of stakeholders, including the public and decision makers.  

‘Our findings suggest that solar, hydro and wind are the most favourable electricity options for the UK public. Nuclear power is favourable for 42 per cent of the UK public while electricity from coal, oil and gas is least favoured.’

In addition, the findings suggest that carbon taxation could play a significant role in promoting low-carbon electricity options, including nuclear. For example, a carbon price of £100 per tonne of carbon dioxide would be sufficient to make nuclear plants of current designs highly profitable. The research also shows that even when the radiological consequences of a large accident are taken into account, nuclear power remains one of the safest sources of electricity.

However, the research claims, nuclear power poses complex ethical questions regarding its inter-generational impacts as future generations, who will not benefit from today’s nuclear electricity, will have to bear the risks and costs of nuclear decommissioning and waste management.