Technology

The UK now wants to build a nuclear reactor a year. It’s much harder than it seems

The current situation is changing the rules of the game. In recent years we have witnessed how some European countries, including Spain and Germany, opt for an energy model that leaves nuclear energy completely aside. And, at the same time, other states, with France and the United Kingdom in the lead, advocate it as an essential ingredient of your energy mix.

This is the context in which we found ourselves at the beginning of this year, but Russia’s invasion of Ukrainian territory that began on February 24 is forcing some countries to rethink your energy strategy. Otherwise it will not be possible to break the ties that still sustain today the great dependence on Russian gas and oil that some countries of the European Union have.

The energy crisis in which the Old Continent is submerged is forcing many countries to reevaluate your relationship with nuclear power, and this doesn’t just mean that states planning to get rid of it may ease their ‘nuclear decoupling’; it also means that advocates can choose to up the ante to address their energy needs. This is precisely what the UK is going to do.

Boris Johnson’s plan raises several very serious questions

A few hours ago, and after visiting the Hartlepool nuclear power plant, located in the northeast of England, the British Prime Minister published a tweet in which he claims to be willing to bet in a way much more forceful for nuclear power.

And in his statement he does not hide in the least his intention to end his dependence on Russian gas and oil. This strategy falls within the foreseeable given the circumstances, but what is more impressive is the quantitative character of your plan.

“Instead of building a new nuclear reactor every decade, we are going to fine-tune one more each year with the purpose of providing households with clean, safe and reliable energy”, he says in his tweet Boris Johnson. There is no doubt that it is a very ambitious initiative, but it raises some important questions that are worth not overlooking.

Nuclear energy can act as the main source of a country’s energy mix, as is the case in France, and it is also attractive for support renewables that have a marked intermittent nature, such as wind or solar energy.

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It is also a solid option as part of the strategy that seeks to minimize the emission of greenhouse gases, but the behavior of the energy market in recent months clearly reflects that nuclear energy will not solve this energy crisis.

During the last weeks the price of electricity has reached all-time highs in France, which is by far the European country with the most nuclear power plants in operation, prompted by the need to stop several reactors to undertake corrective and preventive maintenance tasks.

The start-up of a new nuclear power plant requires investment in the project between ten and fifteen years, so the British nuclear fleet will not experience significant growth over the next two decades

However, the Gauls were paying the most expensive electricity than its neighbors even before they were forced to shut down several of their nuclear reactors. In fact, at the beginning of November 2021 they paid 188 euros for each MW/h, a figure clearly higher than the 171 euros that we Spaniards paid on that same date, and even more than the 160 euros that the Germans paid.

In any case, Boris Johnson’s plan poses other short-term challenges that go beyond the cost of electricity. The most obvious of all of them is that the start-up of a new nuclear power plant currently requires investment in the project between ten and fifteen years, so it is clear that the British nuclear fleet is not going to experience significant growth over the next two decades. And breaking energy ties with Russia requires opting for viable solutions in a much shorter timeframe.

In addition, the amortization cost of new nuclear power plants as a result of the investment that is necessary to start them up and the outlay involved in their operational life is higher than that linked to photovoltaic or wind installations. According to Our World in Data, it has grown from €107/MWh to €152/MWh, while in the same period of time solar photovoltaic energy has gone from €313/MWh to no less than €34/MWh (it has increased reduced by 70%).

Fourth generation nuclear reactors promise to be cleaner, safer and cheaper

In fact, it is the only source of energy whose redemption price it has increased During the last years. Even that of gas has been reduced, which in this area places nuclear energy in a clear disadvantageous position compared to renewable energies, which also do not entail the emission of greenhouse gases.

It is possible that the fourth generation nuclear reactors, and especially the compact and modular units, will be able to solve, or, at least, mitigate these disadvantages. But it is still not entirely clear what role they will play in the energy model of the countries that support their commitment to nuclear energy.

As we have just seen, Boris Johnson’s plan raises many reasonable doubts in the medium and long term, and inevitably in the short term it won’t have any effect in the UK energy strategy. And, precisely, the current energy crisis requires effective solutions that can be implemented in the shortest possible time.

Cover image: Finnbarr Webster/AP

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