This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard UK Country Managers Gwenyth Wren and Thomas Christensen
The United Kingdom was preeminent in the development and use of nuclear energy. In 1956 the world’s first commercial nuclear power station was opened at Calder Hall, which was connected to the grid, in the UK. Currently, 21% of Britain’s electricity supply is provided by nuclear power from 15 reactors located across the country. The constructions on the 15 reactors in use started between 1965-1980, and they were connected to the grid between 1983-1989. However, almost half of the current capacity is to be retired by 2025. The Office for Nuclear Regulation undertakes 10-year safety reviews and under its purview, can grant life extensions for reactors. Many of the reactors, including the ones that have gotten life extensions, are running at less than the original (or design) capacity.
All of the existing power plants are set to be closed by the end of 2030, however, construction has recently commenced on the first of a new generation of nuclear plants. There are currently 5 proposed plants, with one under construction and scheduled to be connected to the grid by 2025 to offset the loss of the previous power plants.
Nuclear power has been cited as an integral part of the UK’s vision to transition to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. It is listed in the country’s 2020 Energy White Paper as a key energy source to support a four-fold increase in clean electricity generation. In addition, the UK’s 10-Point Plan pledges £525 million for large-scale nuclear, including up to £385 million in an Advanced Nuclear Fund for small modular reactors and advanced modular reactors, as well as £220 million dedicated to nuclear fusion.
A group led by Rolls-Royce has announced plans to build up to 16 mini-nuclear plants, referred to as “small modular reactors” (SMR). Rolls-Royce and its partners believe instead of building nuclear mega-projects, the UK should construct a series of smaller nuclear plants from “modules” made in factories.
Furthermore, UK ministers are aiming to bring forward legislation this year to take part in a £20 billion 3.2 gigawatt nuclear power station that could generate electricity for 6m households. Ministers have been in formal negotiations with EDF (French state-backed utility) on the topic of replacing Britain’s ageing nuclear reactors.
Nuclear Generation Decommissioning Fund was set up in 1996 to ensure a secure source of funds for the eventual decommissioning of nuclear power plants, as it is extremely costly to dispose of waste from reactors. The Nuclear Decommission Authority (NDA) was established under the Energy Act of 2004, to manage the decommissioning of 17 licenced nuclear sites, with over 15,000 people employed. The government created the Nuclear Liabilities Financing Assurance Board (NLFAB) to be an independent body that provided advice on the suitability of the decommissioning programs submitted by operators of new nuclear power stations.
In 2020, Direct Rail Services (DRS) and International Nuclear Services (INS) came together to create a leading nuclear transport and logistics organisation, Nuclear Transport Solutions (NTS) to return high-level waste shipments to Germany in 2020/21.
Currently the radioactive waste management involves a series of stages, including treatment, packaging, storage, and disposal. Not all nuclear materials are considered waste because they have potential value. This also includes spent nuclear fuels, which could be reprocessed and reused. At present, these materials are safely stored in case there is a need for them in future. If the UK government decides that these materials have no future use, they will reclassify the material as waste, and they will be disposed of at engineering facilitates where they will remain permanently.
The UK, like many nations, has learned from the accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima which released huge amounts of radioactive material causing widespread harm to humans and ecological systems. Furthermore, these disasters have fuelled widespread concerns about the effects of nuclear power on the environment and the economy by individuals and NGOs. An opinion poll in Britain in 2002 by MORI on behalf of Greenpeace showed large support for wind power and a putting an end to nuclear energy as long as costs were equivalent. These discussions around nuclear energy and nuclear waste led to the creation of the NDA. More recent polling has shown public opinion is split on the use of nuclear energy as a source of power to replace fossil fuel resources.