Julia Pyke, Nuclear Development Director at EDF Energy, explains why action on climate change is just one reason that new nuclear is becoming an ethical choice for investors.
Evidence of climate change is growing and the only serious debate now centres on how bad its effects will be. In this context, it’s encouraging that climate change action is now high on the agenda for investors.
The UK Government understands that nuclear is needed to make rapid decarbonisation of the power sector possible. It is legally committed to cut CO2 emissions by 80% by 2050, which means power generation will be almost fully decarbonised. That’s a future with no coal and very little gas. Nuclear’s low carbon credentials are leading investors to think again about nuclear and to reappraise it as an ethical investment.
Germany shows how hard it is to cut CO2 emissions without nuclear power. It turned away from nuclear after Fukushima and continued to invest heavily in solar and wind. On days without much wind or sun, German power stations burn polluting brown lignite to fill the gap. Despite charging customers billions in renewables surcharges, Germany is on track to miss climate change targets by a wide margin.
In the UK, the amount of renewable energy is likely to double – and EDF Energy welcomes this. Putting reliable, low carbon nuclear in the mix cuts the cost of the intermittency gap – making the system more affordable and almost fully low-carbon. It’s a gap that is unlikely to be filled by batteries. EDF Energy has pioneered the use of batteries in the UK with its 49MW battery plant in Nottinghamshire. It balances renewables over seconds and minutes. However, long-term storage remains prohibitively expensive. Batteries to store a week’s electricity for a town of 120,000 people would cost £5bn – on top of the cost of the electricity.
Ethical investment tests also look at safety, environmental and social factors. Evidence shows that nuclear passes these tests too. A comparison of harm caused in energy production and by pollution shows nuclear is the safest energy by a considerable margin – especially compared to oil, gas and mining. A culture of international peer review, independent regulation, open learning from incidents and safety first are key features of nuclear operation.
Unlike fossil fuels, nuclear does not put pollution directly into the atmosphere as CO2 emissions. A plant like Sizewell C will keep all its spent fuel safely on site during its operation. It’s true that the UK has a nuclear waste legacy – but much of this comes from the poorly documented race to build nuclear weapons in the 1950s and is not a proportionate argument against new nuclear. The UK Government, like other countries, is committed to building a deep depository for all high level nuclear waste.
Modern nuclear plants are designed to be decommissioned – and funding is included up front in the price of the electricity produced.
Nuclear can also be a force for social good. At Hinkley Point C in Somerset, thousands have been employed and trained, and £1bn has already been spent in the regional economy. The project has made big efforts to be accessible and to increase diversity in the industry.
Fear of nuclear power and radiation persists, but out of proportion to the actual record of nuclear power. In contrast the harm from climate change is real. Nuclear may not be everyone’s first choice, but it is a logical and necessary part of the solution to a growing climate crisis, at a price which can be competitive with the total cost of other low carbon options.
(A version of this article was first published in the P3 bulletin magazine)