A report published last week by Energy Systems Catapult, a U.K.-based clean energy nonprofit, concludes that adding double-digit gigawatts of new nuclear is a “low-regrets option” for the United Kingdom as it strives to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. (Legislation establishing the 2050 target date was signed in June of last year, making the United Kingdom the first of the world’s major economic powers to take that step.) The report also stresses, however, that costs for new nuclear must decrease significantly for the technology to meet its potential.
In addition, the report makes the case for a U.K. small modular reactor program, with a similar emphasis on cost reduction. SMR designs that can deliver heat and power cogeneration are worth particular attention, the report states.
The details: Entitled Nuclear for Net Zero: A UK Whole Energy System Appraisal, the report provides a “techno-economic assessment” of the potential contributions that nuclear energy can make to U.K. decarbonization, including:
10 GWe of Hinkley Point C–type Generation III+ power generation, beyond that plant’s expected contribution of some 3.2 GWe.
Advanced Gen IV high-temperature nuclear plants coupled with hydrogen production technology, to enable the switch between power generation and hydrogen production to supply industry, heavy road transport, and marine freight.
SMRs deployed with city-scale district heating networks, to supply cost-effective, low-carbon heat for urban homes and businesses.
What they’re saying: "Nuclear doesn’t need to be expensive if we take the right approach,” said Mike Middleton, Energy Systems Catapult nuclear practice manager, in a statement on the new report. “Achieving net zero without nuclear is possible, but targeting such a system looks unnecessarily risky, to the point of being unlikely to achieve the end result, and potentially expensive. There are no easy paths to get the entire U.K. economy to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, but there is a credible path available to realize significant nuclear cost reduction, delivering potentially lower costs and risks associated with achieving U.K. net zero.”
Middleton went on to outline the path: "Firstly, a commitment to a program of capacity rather than individual unconnected projects. Secondly, capitalizing on the benefits from deploying units in an uninterrupted construction sequence, with multiple units on the same site where possible. Provided that costs reduce in line with the analysis we have reported, the deployment decision regarding new large nuclear is not whether to start, but when to stop.”
Bottom line: According to the report, if nuclear can fulfill its cost-reduction potential and contribute to the challenges of decarbonizing heat and hydrogen, approximately 50 GWe of nuclear may be needed by 2050. The report adds, however, that "there is significant uncertainty about the mix within a 50-GWe nuclear portfolio, underlining the importance of stage-gated approaches for both light-water SMRs and advanced Gen IV reactors.”
The 64-page analysis can be downloaded at Energy Systems Catapult’s website.