It’s in the mix: the pressurised water reactor at Sizewell B nuclear power station in Suffolk © MICHAEL DUNLEA / Alamy Stock Photo

I campaigned against nuclear energy in the 2000s. Now I’ve changed my mind

As the climate emergency spirals out of control and energy insecurity becomes acute, could nuclear power hold the solution?
November 3, 2022

Should the UK “go nuclear”? As we barrel into a period of climatic instability, I’m disappointed that we still need to make the case. 

Britain faces an immediate energy crisis this winter. Sky-high gas prices and a lack of storage facilities in the UK have sharply pushed up energy bills, and many will suffer as a result. Too often government intervention does not go far enough. The state should be shouldering more responsibility—as should those firms making windfall profits. 

But a more daunting long-term challenge lies ahead. It is hard to predict the change that we will see in our climate over the coming decades, but the outlook is grim. Even with “just” 1.2°C of average global warming, harmful regional extremes are already playing out far sooner than expected. Impacts that were projected to happen around 2050 could be with us within years, while 2050 could see an end-of-century extreme scenario. As a relative of mine, a hydrology and ecosystems expert, put it to me: as scientists we used to say that we were in a car racing towards a wall, but didn’t know how far away it was. Now we have hit the wall, but we don’t know how fast we’re still travelling.

One thing is certain—despite efficiency gains, we are going to need more energy. We will have to insulate ourselves from the worst weather extremes with heating and air-conditioning; provide sustainable irrigation and desalinated water; find new ways to keep food supply chains flowing and reaching more people; build the infrastructure needed to suck excess emissions out of the atmosphere; and protect natural ecosystems to give them a chance to adapt. 

Where can we look to for this superabundance of energy? The sun is an obvious answer. Solar panels are quick to manufacture and install and cheap to finance, if not particularly land or resource efficient. Solar power, wind power, hydro and geothermal energy are all going to make increasing contributions globally, and countries will adopt different mixes of these technologies according to their geographical strengths. In the UK, for example, we have bountiful wind resources.

The UK also has a strong track record on nuclear energy. Between 1956 and 1995, we built 41 nuclear reactors at 15 locations, using three main types of reactor design. Yet this was followed by a building hiatus. Many plants have shut, with more closures scheduled. New projects—at Hinkley in Somerset and Sizewell in Suffolk—will help to replace lost capacity, but nuclear’s contribution to UK electricity generation has been declining since the 1990s. 

Nuclear energy fell out of favour partly because of concerns about safety and waste storage. I used to share these concerns, but I have been convinced otherwise, after meeting the ex-Nasa scientist Kirk Sorensen. He’d been tasked with working out how to power a future lunar base, a venture requiring extreme levels of safety and sustainability. He had all but given up until he looked into the production of nuclear power using thorium (an abundant element that produces less waste than uranium) as well as safer coolant systems based on liquid salts. This approach had been worked up in the 1950s, but when nuclear power was commercialised the industry went down a different path. Sorensen, like most people, had been unaware of how many different versions of nuclear power were possible. That variety is one reason why nuclear could help us combat the climate crisis.

Thermal power stations work by heating water until the steam turns great turbines, generating electricity. In a nuclear reactor the heat comes from the process of nuclear fission. The UK, France and the US were the first countries to split atomic bonds in a sustained chain reaction to provide commercial power at scale. And the UK was the first to connect a nuclear reactor to a national electricity grid, at Calder Hall in 1956. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s we pioneered a wide range of reactor designs and had a world-renowned research and development sector; our regulators are still regarded as world class. 

It’s often assumed that all nuclear power stations are the same, but just as “renewables” is a group term for a range of diverse technologies, “nuclear power” describes a group of systems with different attributes depending on choices made about fuels, reaction methods and the use of coolants. To write off this entire group of technologies as having no further role in the fight against climate change is as reckless as dismissing all renewables because you don’t like biomass boilers. 

To dismiss all nuclear power is as reckless as dismissing all renewables because you don’t like biomass boilers

The large-scale pressurised water reactors that France and the US built to power their grids in the 20th century are by no means the only option. There are many hundreds of theoretical designs for nuclear reactors, with around 40 in use or in active development globally today. All provide highly efficient returns in terms of resources deployed for volume of power generated, and all will emit almost zero greenhouse gases throughout more than half a century of operation. (As with all current power generation, including from renewables, there will be emissions elsewhere in the supply chain from construction and transport).

Here is how you could deal with some of the major concerns:

If we want to eliminate any (already remote) chance of a hydrogen explosion, as occurred at Fukushima in Japan in 2011, then we can take water away as a coolant and use liquid metals, salts or carbon dioxide instead.

If our concern is dealing with (the very low volumes of) toxic nuclear waste, reactors can be designed to use the spent fuel, a process that has been proven to work in the US and Russia but not yet commercialised because of the relative ease of using new fuel. 

If the concern is that nuclear fuels may run out, even though this is a distant prospect, then reactors can be designed to breed more fuel than they use. Such reactors have been built but not prioritised due to high fuel availability. In India, however, so-called “breeder” reactors are seen as key since they enable power from thorium, an element found in large quantities in that country. 

If we want to avoid another Chernobyl, then… there is no chance of another such disaster, because that Soviet-designed RBMK reactor had many uniquely dangerous features that will never be replicated elsewhere. Nuclear power has one of the best safety records of any form of power generation, and—measured by deaths per terawatt hour of electricity produced—only solar is (marginally) safer. Public awareness of this fact is very low as media coverage has tended to distort our perceptions of risk. 

If we want to reduce costs, then we can focus on building standardised reactors in a production-line facility, similar to that of a shipyard. We can also speed up deployment that way too. 

If we want to power isolated sites or sea- or space-faring ships, then we can use nuclear batteries that generate power for decades—if not centuries—without needing a refuel. (Though not nuclear-powered aeroplanes, because of the weight.)

The most successful innovations happened around half a century ago, before the rise of supercomputing and developments in material science. We can achieve even more today. 

Changing attitudes: pro-nuclear power marchers in Milan last year © Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo Changing attitudes: pro-nuclear power marchers in Milan last year © Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo

Changing attitudes: pro-nuclear power marchers in Milan last year © Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo

The need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels means there has been a resurgence of interest in harnessing the vast power contained within atomic bonds. The greatest number of innovations are happening in Asia, specifically China. China’s demand for energy has boomed in recent decades and it now has more than 1,000 coal power stations, generating over half of the world’s coal-based electricity. The good news is that Beijing is committed to reducing the carbon intensity of its power production and has been investing in all forms of renewables, as well as in new nuclear power stations (albeit after a pause, following Fukushima). 

One reactor in China, recently switched on, is a high-temperature gas-cooled reactor. It has the same heat output as a standard coal-fired power unit, opening up the opportunity for newer coal power stations to be retrofitted, recycling the turbines and grid connections but replacing the heat source with clean energy. If China were to embrace this idea, at a pace and scale only it is capable of, it would make a massive difference to global climate change. All coal power stations in the UK are too old for this, though the locations could still be repurposed.

In many ways the UK’s advanced gas-cooled reactors (AGRs), the ancestors of the Chinese reactor, are a solution hiding in plain sight, having delivered us clean power reliably and affordably for decades. We may need to frame the issue less as requiring the UK to go nuclear than as building on our existing nuclear record. 

Stuart Crooks worked on the AGRs for most of his career at British Energy, now part of the French-owned giant EDF. He’s currently responsible for building our first new reactor for three decades—a European pressurised water reactor (EPR) at Hinkley Point in Somerset—which is urgently needed to replace reactors coming to the end of their lives. 

But Crooks has a soft spot for the older and relatively simpler reactors. The UK plans to keep them running for as long as is safely possible, but the last one will close by 2030. We should replace them with modern high-temperature reactors (HTRs) that can complement the rollout of larger EPRs, as well as wind and solar power. The increased operating temperature of the HTR also meets some industrial needs, including the direct production of hydrogen without having to generate electricity first. 

Rediscovering the HTRs that we helped to commercialise has another advantage, in that it will spur the development of new heat-tolerant materials and systems. There is also a funded prototype design that captures carbon from the atmosphere more efficiently than existing direct air-capture processes, because it uses the waste heat from a reactor, rather than electricity, to run the process. 

Closing down any source of clean power early, for ideological reasons, is a recipe for failure. That’s why I support the UK investing to reinforce and build on its international standing in nuclear engineering. It plays to our strengths, including a policy environment that enlists public support for all clean technologies, not just renewables, and that can secure investment. However, I do realise there are still objections that need to be addressed.

What about the “waste problem”, for example? I find this the oddest criticism to levy at nuclear, given that the waste is tiny in volume and already being safely stored and accounted for, having caused no harm to anyone, anywhere, ever. Compared to the waste gases from fossil fuel combustion, which are responsible for millions of health problems and shortened lives across the planet, the benefits of nuclear are clear. 

Often, I hear concerns about the long-lived nature of the waste, but the higher the radioactivity, the quicker it decays to a safer state. The idea of long-term deep geological waste depositories is popular, and three are being built in Europe. Yet storage at ground level or in shallow underground facilities can be just as safe, not to mention cheaper and easier. 

More recently I’ve heard some environmentalists argue that nuclear is incompatible with renewables. But because nuclear is predictable, it is complementary with renewables—sometimes more so than different forms of renewable power are to one another. For example, in regions where the grid is weak and fragmented, a surge in wind power can displace solar and vice -versa, as they start to compete within the network. Thankfully, the resilience and flexibility of electricity grids around the world is improving, owing to investments in electricity storage, transmission lines and subsea cables, aiding all forms of power generation.

Support for nuclear at a national level is high in the UK, but there are often objections due to the impact of large construction projects on local environments, especially during building. This is true of other forms of energy infrastructure too, and there is a trade-off between the size and number of projects—overall the area impacted by nuclear development is the lowest of all forms of energy thanks to its efficiency. However, future nuclear developers need to engage with local communities and ensure they benefit from more than just the jobs created. 

Finally, it’s often stated that nuclear build times are too slow and costly. On the first point, the length of time under construction differs for different reactors in different countries, with some high-profile outliers distorting the average. Eighty-five per cent of the world’s roughly 450 operational reactors were built in 10 years or less, and construction times are falling. 

On the cost front, other distortions are often in play. First, nuclear provides power throughout the year and this makes it cheaper to manage the grid, but this saving doesn’t show up in the accounts. More fundamental is the way we calculate the economic viability of major construction projects. Accounting practice is to apply the “discount rate”, which penalises capital-intensive projects that last for a long time (in the case of nuclear power plants, more than half a century). This practice sees the profits from the last few decades of operation effectively written off, reducing the projected income and thus the economic viability of a project. 

Capital will always make up the bulk of the costs, however, and so cheaper borrowing rates improve the economics. The UK’s use of supportive contracts that guarantee fixed prices for generators for power produced (and pay money back to the consumer when they are high) are already helping to make investment less risky and borrowing cheaper. We have recently passed new regulations making it less risky for “patient capital” from, for example, pension funds to invest. 

Investment in the repeat manufacturing of plants, as opposed to building each reactor bespoke and in situ, will also allow for costs savings. There is also a non-monetary value to having the security of supply gained from large, robust, resilient power-generating assets located near the sources of demand. Paying a bit more now is an investment for the future, and a good bet. 

Nuclear power has been providing reliable, clean energy for decades. But despite its extraordinary potential, we have underinvested in it. As we fight to maintain a liveable planet, the UK can make a huge contribution in the nuclear endeavour. I support the engineers, financiers, policymakers and the wider community working to bring this to pass. You should too.