Why new nuclear is essential to beating the climate crisis

Civil nuclear technology, much of it pioneered in the UK, has been providing us with reliable, safe, low-carbon energy for more than 60 years at the same time as sustaining tens of thousands of high-quality jobs.

As we face unprecedented changes in how we produce and consume energy, partly in response to the climate emergency, this explainer looks at why Prospect continues to champion nuclear as a core element of our future energy mix.

Facing up to the climate emergency

Climate change is already happening, and we know that if concerted action is not taken, the consequences of global heating could be devastating for our species.

At present, government inaction, both in the UK and around the world, means that we are on course to miss our targets for reducing carbon emissions by a wide margin. That is why Prospect declared a climate emergency last year, and why we have made campaigning for real, scientifically-informed climate action one of our top priorities.

It is difficult to overstate the challenge we face if we are to reach net zero emissions. Our industrial processes, power systems, transport networks, and heating systems are all still heavily dependent on fossil fuels.

In some key areas, particularly transport and domestic heating, we have made almost no progress in the last 30 years in reducing total emissions. Even in the power sector, where UK progress has been better, we still rely on gas-fuelled generators for a significant proportion of our electricity.

Prospect has consistently argued that renewable sources of energy need to be at the heart of our planning for net zero, and much greater levels of investment are needed to drive a new renewables ‘boom’.

But, renewables cannot be the only energy source we rely on. The physical realities of key renewables technologies like wind and solar mean that their output can (and often does) vary significantly depending on the weather conditions.

To avoid dangerous fluctuations in output, we need complementary sources of low-carbon energy. These will balance out the regular occasions when output from variable renewables drops suddenly sharply, sometimes for prolonged periods.

In March 2021, for example, the UK experienced a ten day ‘wind drought’ when high demand coincided with very low wind, forcing us to rely on carbon intensive gas- and coal-fired power stations to keep electricity flowing.

There are a range of possible candidates, and we can’t afford to discount any of them given the scale of the climate crisis we face. But, at present we only have one proven, scalable, low-carbon technology that can provide large amounts of energy on demand, irrespective of weather conditions: nuclear.

To be clear, we do not think nuclear is the sole solution. Other technologies like tidal energy, carbon capture and storage, and storage options like batteries, will be needed too. We want to see much greater research funding and a timetable for deployment for all these options. But, none of them are currently deployed at scale or proven to work at the level we need them to if we are to make a serious dint in our carbon emissions.

That is why, if we are serious about tackling the climate emergency, we can’t afford to take nuclear off the table. It is not perfect (no technology is), and we certainly need a long-term, safe solution to managing nuclear waste. But nuclear works, is safe, and, crucially, is low carbon.

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Is nuclear prohibitively expensive?

One common critique of nuclear power is that it is too expensive, especially in comparison to other technologies, like renewables, which appear to be getting cheaper to build every year. In large part, though, this is based on a false perception that nuclear technology is inevitably expensive to build and will never be a cost-effective source of energy.

Perhaps understandably, the high cost of support for the new Hinkley Point C (HPC) nuclear plant in Somerset is one of the main sources of this misperception. The funding mechanism chosen, known as a Contract for Difference (CfD), gave the developer, EDF, a guaranteed minimum price for the electricity that HPC will produce. This was in exchange for EDF taking on all the risk during the construction phase of the project, including absorbing the costs of any budget overruns.

But, this is one of the most expensive ways to build a nuclear power plant. Asking the risk-averse private sector to finance a project of this scale, and assume all the construction risk, will inevitably drive up costs. This is especially true with respect to a nuclear power station, given the sheer scale and complexity of a project of this nature.

Add to that the fact that the UK hasn’t tried to build a new nuclear power station in almost a quarter of a century, necessitating a major investment in creating a skilled workforce that can complete the project.

As a result, under a private financing arrangement, the cost of capital can be 50% or more of total project costs. But, alternative models exist that could dramatically reduce the price.

As the National Audit Office has shown, the cost of electricity from HPC could have been cut by more than half if the government had taken a 75% stake in the project, making it competitive with other sources of clean power such as offshore wind. The stubborn insistence by the government on private sector nuclear development, an approach taken by no other country in the world, has kept nuclear costs artificially high.

And, instead of planning individual, bespoke projects as we do under the current model, we could adopt a ‘fleet’ approach: building multiple plants to the same design and specifications, achieving significant economies of scale and further reducing costs. The price of nuclear is therefore in part a political choice – with the right financial model it can be a cheap, cost-competitive form of energy.

What about safety and nuclear waste?

Nuclear power has been the subject of persistent concerns about safety and the management of radioactive waste. This is understandable, but it is essential to put these issues in perspective.

Nuclear is a highly-regulated, very safe technology, and incidents are extremely rare. The UK’s Office for Nuclear Regulation estimates that you are five times more likely to be struck by lightning than caught up in a nuclear accident in the UK.

Most of the radiation that UK residents are exposed to each year comes from environmental sources, and especially from the naturally occurring radioactive gas radon. Research on radiation exposure by Public Health England estimates that total radiation from all nuclear sites accounts for only around 0.01% of the average annual radiation dose a UK resident receives.

And, while the safe management of radioactive waste needs to be carefully planned for and properly funded, it is again important to put the issue in perspective.

The total current amount of high-level radioactive waste in the UK (accounting for 95% of the radioactivity produced from generating electricity) would fit in an area the size of one quarter of a football pitch. Most of this was produced in legacy reactors. A new fleet, with more efficient reactors, is expected to add only 10% to the existing total volume.

A safe, secure option for storing this waste long-term exists – a subterranean geological disposal facility – and Prospect has long been a supporter of such an option. Now we just need the political will to make it happen.

Creating a fair and resilient economy

If we are going to achieve net zero while also ensuring decent living standards for everyone, and a fair distribution of wealth and resources, then it is highly likely that demand for low-carbon electricity will need to rise significantly over the coming decades as sectors like transport and heating electrify.

Scenario modelling by National Grid and the Committee on Climate Change suggests that by 2050 peak electricity demand could spike by more than 90%, while total annual electricity demand could double. Ensuring that this increased demand doesn’t lead to higher emissions is a key part of the reason why we need reliable sources of power like nuclear to remain a core part of our energy mix.

One counter-argument that is sometimes used is that we can mitigate the need for nuclear by relying on more small-scale, local energy capacity and by making use of ‘smart grid’ technologies. And, to be clear, Prospect supports these kinds of developments. Indeed, many of our members in the energy sector will be playing a critical role in delivering smarter energy systems. But, there are also real limits to what these approaches can achieve, especially in the short term.

As anyone who has followed the ongoing debacle around installing smart meters knows, getting even basic forms of smarter energy technology into consumers’ homes has proved expensive and very challenging. The energy regulator, Ofgem, has also been very reluctant to allow networks to invest in some of the IT upgrades needed to make networks smarter, claiming that evidence of value to consumers isn’t there yet.

And, crucially, there are real questions about how sustainable and fair some of these smarter systems would actually be. It is very likely that better-off households will be able to take most advantage of the financial benefits of smarter systems, while those least able to change their consumption patterns will end up saddled with higher costs. Without other measures, smart systems could end up entrenching greater inequality. So while smarter grids are necessary and important, they have real limitations.

Building a resilient energy system

One last key factor is resilience. National Grid’s recent modelling suggested that a future system that is more decentralised, uses less nuclear, and relies more on smart systems, will be increasingly dependent on imports of electricity by 2050. Conversely, in scenarios where we rely more on nuclear, the UK becomes a net exporter of power and, arguably, has a much more resilient energy system. In a highly uncertain world of pandemics, increasing global trade friction, as well as the disruptions that climate change will bring, achieving greater resilience and energy independence will be crucial.

The only other real alternative to these options is to make drastic changes to the way we lead our lives. Greatly curtailing our use of transport, eating a vegan diet, dismantling what remains of our industrial base could have a big impact on our energy and emissions profile. But, the social and economic cost would be extremely high – coronavirus has forced us to temporarily impose some of these kinds of changes, and the economic and employment impacts have been devastating, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

In contrast, investing in nuclear would allow us to build a resilient, fair energy system and economy, one which could support a decent standard of living for everyone. A new fleet of reactors would create tens of thousands of high-quality jobs, most of them in regional centres away from London, and could be a core component of a new clean energy growth engine for the UK economy. The UK’s traditional expertise in nuclear engineering could allow it be a major global exporter of advanced technology and know-how.


Prospect is passionate about the need to seriously get to grips with the climate emergency, whilst at the same time building a vibrant, fair economy that can support decent jobs and living standards for all. That is why we believe nuclear needs to be a core component of our future energy system.

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