Climate change: why nuclear energy is key
As the UK general election build-up intensifies, it is reassuring to see the three major party leaders come together to sign a joint pledge to tackle climate change. Whichever party wins the 2015 election, however, policy makers should look to nuclear-generated power to contribute more to the UK energy mix.
There are currently 16 operational nuclear reactors in the UK, providing approximately 20% of the country’s electricity. Although this might seem like a significant amount, nuclear generating capacity needs to be increased if the UK is serious about cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 – a target set out in the 2008 Climate Change Act.
Increased nuclear generation will also allow the UK to move away from its dependence on natural gas. Some believe that substituting gas for coal will be enough to tackle climate change, but as a recent report in Nature shows, this is unlikely to be enough. The author of this report, Haewon Mcjeon said: “We have no issue with gas and believe it can be an important part of a diversified electricity system; but according to this study, it is not a great tool in the fight against climate change.”
A cost-efficient strategy
When it comes to cost, there is no doubt that nuclear power plants are expensive to build and maintain, but no more so than all other low-carbon technologies. Studies have shown that nuclear plants cost less to maintain and operate than offshore wind farms - plus, nuclear will deliver power more reliably throughout the year.
It is thought that 3000 wind turbines – usually covering hundreds of square kilometres, posing a threat to wildlife and the environment – generates the same amount of electricity as one nuclear power station. Until wind technology evolves into something more efficient, it seems to make more sense to develop nuclear technology.
Growing public support
Nuclear energy has slowly been gaining political and public support in recent years. A 2014 Yougov poll showed that 42% of those questioned supported nuclear power (up from 38% in 2012). Only 20% opposed it (down from 27%). Public support is important if the government is to pave the way for more nuclear power plants.
One day, renewable energy will offer a clean method of generating large amounts of electricity to meet our ever-growing demand. Until then, nuclear should be embraced as the responsible method of this generation.
The best option?
Although nuclear energy does not represent a perfect solution to the problem of climate change (the 2011 Fukushima disaster showed that there is still a considerable risk factor associated with nuclear reactors), it is currently the best option to replace heavy CO2-emitting fossil fuel sources.
Nuclear energy is emission-free and can be relied upon to provide energy throughout the year, and on a large scale. It is a source that can help fight climate change, while delivering enough energy to maintain standards of living in an increasingly technological and power-hungry world.
Ideally, renewable energy sources will eventually act as replacements for coal, oil, and natural gas, but in reality the development of renewables has been far too slow. At the current rate, without the necessary investment, it will be a long time before renewable sources can be relied upon to contribute enough energy to make a serious impact on climate change.