Hi Xanthe! How did you end up working for Sizewell C nuclear power plant?
Possibly not a very exciting way to start your interview but…! As a lawyer I worked on the legal arrangements for the Hinkley Point C power plant in 2016. The design of the Sizewell plant is a copy of Hinkley so it was an easy transition to start to work on Sizewell.
When I joined the Sizewell C team, I found it really interesting how the narrative surrounding nuclear power had changed to focus on nuclear as a source of low carbon electricity and a contributor to achieving net zero. The whole debate around the need for nuclear had shifted.
How can nuclear, a non-renewable energy source, be part of the UK’s future energy mix?
Nuclear can support the growth of renewables in the UK’s future energy mix. To make sure that the lights stay on when the sun isn’t shining and/or the wind isn’t blowing, the UK needs ‘baseload’ power. If the UK wants to hit its decarbonisation targets, that baseload power needs to be low carbon. Right now, the options for low carbon baseload power are hydro power, nuclear power and gas with carbon capture and storage.
Nuclear is the same as solar and wind in that it doesn’t generate any carbon dioxide directly when generating power. That said nuclear, solar and wind all have what’s called life cycle carbon emissions (those indirect carbon emissions that relate to, for example, mining, transport, and construction). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) publishes estimates of lifecycle carbon emissions for different technologies. You might be surprised to learn that, according to the IPCC, nuclear power has similar lifecycle carbon emissions to offshore wind and less than solar.
Although nuclear is non-renewable, there are interesting opportunities to make it as environmentally friendly as possible. Uranium itself is abundant and repurposing used nuclear fuel so that it can be used again is a possibility.
Is the idea that nuclear would always be around to complement renewable energy, or would it be phased out in the long term?
It depends on who you speak to! Some people argue that nuclear should only be considered a transition technology while technology in the battery, fission and hydrogen spaces advance. Other people see it as a fuel of the future that will always be a necessary part of our energy mix that can help support the growth of renewable power. Electricity Map is a great app that shows the carbon emissions of different countries based on their electricity grids – you can see which technologies make up the electricity mix for the green (low carbon) countries here!
At the moment, nuclear power generates about 20% of the UK’s electricity mix but the existing power stations in the UK are starting to shut down and will then be decommissioned . After 2030, Sizewell B will be the only one of the current fleet still in operation (Hinkley Point C is planned to come online in the mid 2020s). That’s a lot of low carbon power being taken off the grid with no more large scale nuclear power plants in construction!
Can we hit net zero emissions by 2050 without nuclear power?
Net Zero by 2050 is going to be a challenge! The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), in their report, recommended that to achieve a net zero target by 2050, electricity production will need to more than double to meet the increased demand for scaling up of electric vehicles, heating, transport and industry. To meet this increased demand, and replace carbon intensive energy technologies on the grid, the current capacity of low carbon energy will need to quadruple! We need more of all low carbon energy sources.
Another factor to consider is land usage – as it is so energy intensive, nuclear needs many times less land than wind and solar. This obviously can have huge implications for biodiversity, especially in a relatively small but highly populated country like the UK.
How is toxic waste disposed of to ensure it will never contaminate its surroundings?
It is stored in steel and concrete containers usually on the site where the power is generated. In the future, the UK proposes to have a long term geological disposal facility (to store nuclear waste underground) but this plan hasn’t yet been finalised. Until then, it can be safely stored in these containers above ground. In other countries the containers are stored above ground long term.
Nuclear waste is very heavily regulated and carefully managed and as a result there have been no incidents where radioactive waste has caused significant harm. Interestingly, if you stand next to the containers with a Geiger counter, it won’t register anything.
What are the operational risks of a nuclear power plant and what lessons have been learned from Fukushima?
It’s really hard to make this sound interesting and not get too geeky and technical! The UK is a very heavily regulated industry – and the UK has one of the highest standards of regulations in terms of construction and operation.
After Fukushima there were reviews of the regulations in the UK and across the world and, even though we do not have earthquakes in the same way as Japan, changes were made in the regulations to improve further the safety of the plants.
I have been interested to learn when I speak to people that lots of people don’t even realise that we have nuclear plants quietly and safely operating away in the UK, as they have for many many years. There have been more than 70,000 years of safe operation of nuclear power stations – which is a lot!
How well informed do you find the UK public regarding nuclear energy?
We’ve done a lot of research and there’s a real mix. For quite a lot of people it’s an emotional issue – it flicks a switch, regardless of the facts. You just say nuclear power and they think of Chernobyl and that extraordinary HBO show… so they immediately think about it negatively.
But in the UK, often opinion is quite positive. Public opinion seems to recognise that it brings in a lot of skilled jobs, wealth and industry to particular areas and that across the UK provides a huge supply chain. But there’s still some way to go until people really understand not just the facts of nuclear power but also ideas like Net Zero. If you’re not in the industry, it can seem quite technical!
Something we do struggle with is the image that nuclear (and nuclear waste in particular) has in the public eye…… Homer Simpson with piles of leaky green toxic waste is unfortunately the visual image most people have but this is really very far from reality!
Since I started working on Sizewell in 2019, we are seeing many more people who describe themselves as ‘green’ or ‘environmentalist’ who recognise that nuclear power is required or needs to be increased - and certainly saying we shouldn’t turn off existing nuclear power. For example, Zion Lights who was part of Extinction Rebellion went from being an anti-nuclear protester to being a supporter.
What do you think of the plan for smaller floating nuclear energy plants that could connect to the grid of developing countries and provide them with energy?
Personally, I’m pro anything that can help developing countries decarbonise without halting growth. Developed Countries were able to industrialise and grow using fossil fuels but are now focused on the damage to the climate that caused and asking others not to burn fossil fuels and move to low carbon power sources. Surely the development of technologies that support decarbonisation can only be a good thing …
What in life do you most object to?
A ‘glass half empty’ attitude.