The Importance of Nuclear Power to Scotland (May 2022)

Andrew Renton & Simon Stuttaford

Introduction

The impact of the COP26 conference in Glasgow in 2021 changed the world view of energy production for ever. The idea that the hydrocarbon giants can be entrusted with the wellbeing of the planet has been debunked. The criticality of effective action to decarbonise power and transport was made clear.

Scottish Government policy: A 2050 Vision for Energy in Scotland endorses a low carbon, integrated, whole system approach. It refers to renewable energy – but it is based on 2016 data and has been updated intermittently. It recognises the need for the strategy to change and adapt to developing circumstances. It has not been materially updated since COP26.

Although the energy transition is much talked about, it is still in its infancy. There is a real prospect that maintaining global temperatures at a safe level will not be achieved.

Why does this matter to a small country like Scotland which has offshore reserves of oil and gas, offshore wind and tidal generation, onshore hydro, wind, and other renewable sources of power?

In simple terms, as Bill Clinton once famously said- “it’s the economy - stupid”!

Scotland has a number of nuclear sites which contribute to the economy. It has great skills and it has an internationalised skilled engineering resource which makes it an ideal location to source and find skilled workers, supply chain and locations.

It is striking that it was only when Hunterston “B” power station closed that most people in Glasgow realised they were provided with electricity from a nuclear power station. Perhaps that was because the anti-nuclear lobby had - some say with the encouragement of the hydrocarbon industry - been so successful in painting nuclear power as an anti-social environmentally risky form of generation, that it was not talked about.

Last year we began work on trying to put right some of the misrepresentations on nuclear power generation and produced a short film based on key misconceptions identified from questions we put to a range of people in their teens, twenties and thirties.

We are now looking at what nuclear power generation means to Scotland and the Scottish economy - not from an emotive or political or policy point of view but from the facts and based on research by reliable institutions and international bodies.

Simple Facts About Scotland

Scotland has 8 major nuclear sites:

The importance of these sites to Scotland across education, employment, economy, skills, exports, imports and as a source of high skills and capability should not be underestimated.

The objections to nuclear power generation in Scotland are usually based on three main concerns:

• Danger from nuclear incidents

• Cost of electricity

• Storage of hazardous nuclear waste

The following pages look at each of these.

Danger from Nuclear Incidents

All nuclear incidents are recorded and reported. The following table taken from the International Energy Agency report on the safety of civil nuclear power plants shows all the nuclear incidents and their status since 1952:

Serious Nuclear Reactor Accidents (Extracted from Appendix 2 of the IEA report)

Serious accidents in military, research and commercial reactors. All except Vandellos involved damage to or malfunction of the reactor core. At Vandellos a turbine fire made the 17-year old plant uneconomic to repair. For INES (International Nuclear Emergency Status) ratings, see the following table.

For comparison with other forms of power generation refer to Annex 1 (in downloaded paper) which was also prepared by the International Energy Agency. We believe that an objective assessment would show that comparatively, the cost in human terms of nuclear power generation is very much less than the comparable cost in hydrocarbon industries as shown in Annex 1.

For a number of reasons public perception of the safety of nuclear power plants is that they are dangerous places to work and to live around, when the evidence does not support that view.

The Cost of Electricity

The electricity industry uses a formula to make a comparative assessment of the cost of producing electricity. This is called the Levelised Cost of Electricity (LCOE). This approach, so far as it reasonably can, measures the cost of producing electricity from a generation plant at the point when it is transmitted to the network or grid.

LCOE (Courtesy IEA Dec 2020)

Projected levelised cost of electricity
(courtesy of IEA December 2020)

The information shown is provided by the International Energy Agency, an independent body representing all forms of energy generation globally.

It shows on an objective basis that the levelised cost of long term operation of nuclear power plants is among the lowest costs achievable.

The suggestion that nuclear power is the most expensive form of power generation is not borne out by independent objective analysis by the IEA.

Storage of Nuclear Waste

We take as a starting point legacy waste, which is provided for in the UK government budgeted approach for dealing with nuclear waste occurring from facilities built and operated before the 1970’s. The government refers to its ongoing commitment to deal with this legacy waste in a safe and comprehensive way as, 'the nuclear provision'. It is based on the best assessment available of how much it will cost to clean up 17 of the UK’s earliest nuclear sites over a programme lasting around 120 years. The legacy waste includes some of the early materials from the post war development of nuclear materials and weapons, through to the 1970’s. It is fully provided for in a fund created by government.

This legacy waste material contains low, medium and high level nuclear waste. It is considered that high level waste should be stored for the long term, potentially 1000’s of years, in deep underground repositories, sealed from all but with very secure access.

The second generation of nuclear power plants in the UK will not produce the same volumes or levels of waste. These plants were previously owned by British Energy and now by EDF. Every modern nuclear power plant has to provide a contribution to a Nuclear Liabilities Fund to ensure that any waste can be dealt with economically and safely.

Putting this in the context of volumes of waste from current operational plants, 94% of all waste from the operation and decommissioning of the plants will be low level waste which can be disposed of in the same way as normal industrial waste categorised as low hazard. This is referred to in nuclear waste terms as VLLW or LLW. The next category of waste is medium level waste or MLW which can be safely stored in controlled premises with no special measures. This amounts to around 5.9% of the total waste from the current plants in operation. The final level is high level waste or HLW which has to be stored in secure cannisters and potentially in geological repositories. This amounts to approximately 0.1% of the total waste from current sites. In comparative terms the waste from current operating plants will add approximately 10% to the overall inventory of nuclear waste and it will all be dealt with on a fully funded and secure basis in accordance with international rules. An interesting summary is available on (https://blog.policy.manchester.ac.uk/posts/2016/01/radioactive-waste-legacy-versusnew-build/).

Looking forward, new technologies, referred to as Small Modular or Advanced Modular Reactors, will have very low waste outputs and in some cases the fuel used will be recycled existing waste.

These new technologies are demonstrably fail safe and in some cases are contained as an operational unit with no active functions other than production of steam and power. Many in the industry see these technologies as the future of fission based nuclear power generation. The recent papers and scientific analysis of the demand for power generation in the future almost without exception recognise that nuclear power generation using fission reactions is an essential part of securing low carbon, sustainable green energy production. The evidence clearly supports the view that we need existing and new nuclear technologies to deal with this crisis.

The future of power generation by nuclear fusion is a goal to aim for, but it is still a long way off. In terms of waste products, it will also have waste to be managed, but as with current technologies the waste volumes will be at manageable levels.

The facts around this often get confused because of the legacy waste position – the clear position in the modern industry is that all new nuclear power generation including the existing generation fleet will have a fully funded and controlled waste management programme compliant with the highest international standards of safety as applied in the UK.

Other Comparison Points

In the interests of providing a basis for comparative understanding the following information looks at the waste produced by other energy production plants.

CO2

The World Nuclear Association has produced this table which gives the comparisons of CO2 emissions:

“Life-cycle emissions of electricity options:

On a life-cycle basis, nuclear power emits just a few grams of CO2 equivalent per kWh of electricity produced. A median value of 12g CO2 equivalent/kWh has been estimated for nuclear, similar to wind, and lower than all types of solar. The majority of CO2 emissions from the life-cycle of nuclear power stem from cement and steel production, and component manufacturing during construction.”

Power stations emissions comparison (WNA: May 2021)

Land Use

From a land use and preservation of alternative uses point of view the comparative analysis is again provided by the World Nuclear Association in 2020:

“A large two-unit nuclear power plant can provide electricity for 4-5 million people from a generating footprint of just 2 square kilometres. However, the land use of all energy generating technologies extends beyond their generating footprint, and includes the required mining of raw materials and, for conventional sources of power, their fuel cycle. Taking this into account, the land use of biomass, hydro, wind and solar are between one and three orders of magnitude greater than nuclear.”

Summary

There are many other studies which reference the benefits to society, economies and the planet from the use of nuclear power generated from safe and affordable modern technologies.

This short paper is intended to set the scene for an informative and constructive debate on how nuclear power generation in the 21st century fits into the Scottish Economy and why Scotland’s institutions, businesses, communities and workforce have so much to offer and contribute to nuclear power generation at home and internationally.

Annex 1 can be found in the downloaded document.
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The Importance of Nuclear Power to Scotland (May 2022)
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