Tackling Climate Change using Nuclear Power

By Adam Jackson

Tackling climate change is no longer only an issue of science, it is an issue on every level. Politicians, economists, scientists, artists, and writers have been working to reduce the emissions we are producing and the way that we see the world around us. It is not only individual changes that need to be made at this point, but global systemic reform needs to be brought in, such as switching to greener energy. I will be using the nuclear industry, an area I am interested in, as an example of this idea. Using case studies from the UK and from around the world I will argue that we have had the potential of using fewer fossil fuels for years, but corporate and political disinterest. I will be considering why nuclear power has been disregarded for so many years, why different nuclear power projects have been cancelled and finally how innovations in reactor technology can make nuclear power more versatile. With the UK government promising to be Net Zero by 2050 how can we reset the public’s view on nuclear energy?

Since Enrico Fermi’s first nuclear reactor in 1942[1], people have started to see the benefits of nuclear power. Although originally designed for war, the power of the atom was found to have a second purpose, and the first commercial nuclear powerplant was opened in 1954[2]. Nuclear energy is produced via fission of uranium-235 atoms; breaking the atoms apart and using the energy released to heat a coolant. The coolant boils water to steam in a second loop and the steam rotates a turbine connected to a generator which makes electricity. The steam is then condensed back into water and reused. This process not only produces no CO2 but also releases a powerful amount of energy. The fission of 1g of uranium can produce as much energy as burning 3 tons of coal[3]. As of 2020 there were 440 working nuclear powerplants across the world, and currently 10% of the world’s power comes from nuclear energy[4]. France generates about 70% of its electricity from nuclear energy[5], and America up to 20%[6]. It takes up less space than hydroelectric energy, is up to 3.5 times more reliable than wind or solar energy and produces none of the carbon that fossil fuels do[7]. Promising statistics such as these do beg the question as to why other countries, especially the UK, haven’t invested more into this form of power.

Nuclear fission has been a part of the UK’s national grid since the first Magnox reactor was switched on at Calder Hall in 1956[8]. Magnox reactors are a form of nuclear power that runs on natural uranium, with a dual purpose of creating electricity and producing plutonium for the UK’s nuclear weapons program[9]. These Magnox reactors finally started to be decommissioned at the start of the new millennium, despite their electricity generating capabilities, due to a design flaw making them incapable of producing high powered fuel burn-ups (how much of the fuel is used effectively). Decommissioning started almost 20 years later than expected[10]. However, between each reactor site, improvements were made to the reactor design to increase electricity output. Unfortunately, this meant different sizes and shapes of components had to be used, increasing the cost of operating the reactors. The second generation of nuclear reactors was completed during the 1970’s and 80’s. These Advanced Gas Reactor (AGR) used the same underlying principles as the Magnox design, however the increased operating temperature meant improved efficiency and better reactor technology contribute towards a higher power output. The first Magnox reactors at Calder Hall were only able to produce 50MW of net electricity each, whereas an AGR reactor can produce on average 500MW[11]. The latest type of reactor to be built in the UK is the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR). This is a pressuried water reactor, designed to rectify the Magnox design issue as all reactors were constructed using a set design from Areva. This makes the construction of these types of reactors cheaper. The EPR design is quoted to produce 3.2GW per site, with each site containing two reactors, this power output is significantly higher than the first reactors at Calder Hall. If the UK government were to fund this operation correctly it could cut 9 million tonnes of CO2[12] each year.

There have also been plans across Europe to build nuclear reactors, however funding has been withdrawn due to its high-risk reputation.  There have been five cases across the UK alone of reactor plans that were considered but were eventually cancelled altogether. The most recent of these cancellations came in September 2020 when Hitachi cancelled plans for a Advanced Boiling Water Reactor (ABWR) reactor to be built in Wylfa[13] that would generate 2.9GW of electricity[14]. The plans were initially only shelved in January 2019 after a failure to agree funding with the UK Government. But were eventually scrapped due to stress caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as a lack of insurance policy from the UK Government[15]. The only nuclear plant in construction in the UK right now is Hinkley Point C in Somerset, the first EPR reactor to be built on UK soil. However, with the project already over budget and with a current predicted price tag of £22.5bn[16], this is very expensive, and is high risk for the investors. CGN are currently awaiting approval for a new nuclear build in Suffolk, which will replicate the EPR design and should reduce the overall cost of the project, hopefully leading to further investment and a new UK government insurance policy for future nuclear builds.

Small Modular Reactor’s (SMR’s) are a suitable solution for the difficult financing around nuclear reactors. There is much less infrastructure involved in building a SMR plant, which in itself has environmental benefits as they are smaller in size or can be built underground, limiting the damage to the land above. This also means less money and initial investment for the owners of the plant, making SMR’s more financially appealing to investors[17]. Standard nuclear reactors benefit from economies of scale, the bigger the reactor the more efficient it is and the more energy it can produce. However, with standard nuclear sites being several acres in size, they need to be distanced from urban areas to have enough space. By contrast SMR’s can replace the brownfield sites that coal plants once inhabited, without the risk of particulates from coal giving the residents asthma[18]. SMR’s are a huge opportunity for the UK to become far more sustainable, compare this with the new metallurgical coal mine build potentially going ahead in Cumbria, which is being dug off the coast of Whitehaven[19], SMR’s have far less of an environmental impact even down to an aesthetic level, as the countryside would not have to be disturbed.

The biggest misunderstanding about nuclear power is the idea that it is unsafe. Nuclear accidents have become something of a media circus, with the 2019 documentary Chernobyl being only one example of public fascination with nuclear disaster. We must be able to view tragedies such as this with the respect that they deserve, however we must not forget that these are statistically outliers. Both the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters were caused by a combination of human error and unforeseeable natural disasters respectively. Chernobyl was a poorly designed reactor; and Moscow had decided to run a test as to whether it could work without cooling pumps. Of course, it could not. In Fukushima the sea wall built in front of the reactor was not high enough, and when the 2011 tsunami hit the diesel generators in the basement were flooded and Hydrogen in the reactor building ignited and caused an explosion. These events had tragic consequences however these are two tragedies in a world with 440 working reactors. Statistically nuclear energy results in 99.8% fewer deaths than brown coal, 99.7% fewer than coal mining, 99.6% fewer than oil and 97.5% fewer deaths than gas[20]. The world is wasting opportunities to produce cleaner energy due to fears that are not actually grounded in facts. Nothing is risk free; however, the risks of nuclear power are clearly outweighed by the benefits and in a world which is already ‘on fire’ as said by Greta Thunberg, nuclear power seems like a fairly obvious solution.

On top of the promise to be Net zero by 2050, the UK government has also decreed that the sale of new cars running on diesel and petrol will be banned from 2030, and hybrid cars from 2035. This is definitely a step in the right direction, however there are still things to be considered. With both heating and transport leaning away from carbon emitting gases and towards electrical power, the demand on the national grid is set to increase dramatically over the next few years. As of 2020 nuclear power made up only 17.2% of all electricity generated in Great Britain[21].

Overall I think it is fair to say that at least for the UK, nuclear energy is our most viable option for reducing greenhouse gases and combatting climate change. The expense and risks are factors for heavy consideration however it is clear from the above points that the benefits by far outweigh these potential issues. If the UK wants to stick to its promise of Net 0 by 2050 then SMR’s are the cheapest and most sustainable way of doing so. By building these on brownfield sites we could be producing almost 60% of our electricity this way; and all we need to achieve this is a government insurance policy and investment in a greener future. It’s clear to me that nuclear power has all the potential to save the planet, we just need people to sway from public opinions that are based on fear mongering and start educating people on nuclear power beyond disasters like Chernobyl. The power to save the planet already exists; we simply need to implement it.


[1] https://www.ne.anl.gov/About/reactors/early-reactors.shtml#:~:text=Chicago%20Pile%201%20was%20the,Chicago's%20Stagg%20Field%20football%20stadium., Argonne National Laboratory

[2] Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant, John Morrissey, March 2015

[3] https://www2.lbl.gov/abc/wallchart/chapters/14/1.html, Nuclear fission energy, August 2000

[4] Energy and Environment, statista

[5] Nuclear Power in France, World Nuclear Association, January 2021

[6] Nuclear Power in the USA, World Nuclear Association, May 2021

[7] Nuclear Power is the Most Reliable Energy Source and It’s Not Even Close, Office of Nuclear Energy, March 2021,

[8] Calder Hall nuclear power station, Institute of Civil Engineers, 2018

[9] Description of the Magnox Type of Gas Cooled Reactor (MAGNOX), S.E. Kensen and E. Nonbøl, November 1998, Roskilde, Denmark, Nordic nuclear safety research, page 8

[10] See 1

[11] Description of the Magnox Type of Gas Cooled Reactor (MAGNOX), S.E. Kensen and E. Nonbøl, November 1998, Roskilde, Denmark, Nordic nuclear safety research, page 10

[12] Hinkley Point C, GOV.UK

[13] Hitachi cancels its £20bn Wyfla Newydd power plant, Yoana Cholteeva, September 2020, Power Technology

[14] U.K.Nuclear’s Future Left in Limbo as Investors Walk Away, Rachel Morison, September 2020, Bloomberg Green

[15] Britain needs new nuclear, and the government should fund it, Jonathan Ford, June 2020, Financial Times

[16] British Hinkley Point Nuclear Plant Delayed With Higher Costs, Francois De Beaupuy and Rachel Morison, January 2021, Bloomberg

[17] Economics and finance of Small Modular Reactors: A systematic review and research agends, B. Mignacca, G. Locatelli, Renewable and Sustaninable Energy Reviews, Volume 118, February 2020

[18] Small Nuclear Power Reactors, World Nuclear Association, April 2021

[19] Cumbria coal mine: What is the controversy about? Roger Harrabin, March 2021, BBC News

[20] What are the safest and cleanest sources of energy? Our World in Data, Hannah Ritchie, February 2020

[21] https://grid.iamkate.com/, National Grid: Live Status, May 2021