Can nuclear power solve the energy gap?

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Sam Smidt is one of the lead educators on The Open University’s free online course, The Science of Nuclear Energy. In this post, she discusses whether nuclear power can – or should – have a role in our future.

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Decommissioning old coal, gas and nuclear power stations in the 2020s will result in a shortfall of energy in the UK – an “energy gap.” The debate about how best to make up that shortfall really polarises public opinion. Should we invest in nuclear energy? Will renewable energy provide enough to fill the gap?

Many people believe we should commit to renewable energy sources, such as wind, wave and solar energy, which are carbon free and don’t carry any of the risks and concerns about nuclear energy.

But renewables carry their own problems – the supply of energy is intermittent, they are still relatively expensive, and there are lots of issues about where to site wind or solar farms.

So, why are there concerns about nuclear power and are they founded? What are the pros and cons of nuclear power?

The pros and cons of nuclear power

On the plus side, it’s the most straightforward way of reducing the UK greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. It would offer energy security, meaning we would be less dependent on imported power and we can assure the fuel needed for the full lifetime of a new reactor.

But on the minus side, it’s expensive to build new reactors and investors won’t get a return on their investment for many years and therefore want guarantees about the return they will get.

There are environmental risks which were highlighted recently by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011. This led Germany to cancel its entire nuclear programme.

Then there are the issues around nuclear waste – while new reactors must have plans for dealing with the waste designed in from the outset, there is still lots of uncertainty about how to deal with the long-term storage of nuclear waste from the last half century.

Should nuclear power solve the energy gap?

So, can nuclear power solve the energy gap? The answer to this is a fairly certain yes, so perhaps a better question is “Should nuclear power solve the energy gap?” The answer to that is much harder to give.

What is clear is that the energy gap should be addressed in more than one way. While nuclear power may be one facet of our future energy portfolio, green, renewable energy sources must continue to be developed and should form an increasing part of our energy portfolio.

The potential for smart meters and increased energy efficiency measures must be exploited faster to change the way we consume electricity. By being smarter in the ways in which we consume energy and diversifying the ways in which we generate energy, we might be able to minimise our dependence on energy sources that we are not comfortable with.

What do you think? Should nuclear power solve the energy gap? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below or using #FLnuclear15. Or to find out more about the intricacies of this debate, join the free online course, The Science of Nuclear Energy.

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