nuclear power

Small nuclear reactors for Scotland? No thanks, say experts

A report by scientists proposing that Scotland should consider building an array of small nuclear power reactors to help combat climate warming has been dismissed as “disingenuous”.

Three experts under the banner of the Nuclear Consulting Group think tank say that a new report from the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) displayed a “disappointingly poor grasp of the realities of the nuclear issue”.

They have been backed by campaigners, but the RSE has warned against ruling out energy technologies that may not meet “every possible criterion”. The nuclear power industry welcomed RSE’s report.

Hunterston reactors under ‘enhanced’ regulation due to cracks

The RSE report on ‘Scotland’s Energy Future’ was published on 17 June 2019 following a two-year inquiry. Its lead authors were Sir Muir Russell, who was head of the Scottish civil service and principal of the University of Glasgow, and Rebecca Lunn, an engineering professor at the University of Strathclyde.

“Nuclear power has zero carbon emissions at point of generation and could play a major role in helping Scotland meet its climate targets,” the report concluded.

It accepted that there were “well recognised challenges” with nuclear such as costs, decommissioning, and the disposal of radioactive waste. “Addressing these issues will require substantial investment over a prolonged period of time,” it said.

But the RSE report suggested that “small modular reactors” (SMRs) could be a solution. They are reactors designed to be assembled from pre-made parts to generate under 300 megawatts of electricity, a quarter of that produced by current nuclear stations.

“SMRs could provide many of the benefits of large-scale nuclear energy, but in a form that may prove more acceptable to the public,” the report said.

“There is a high level of uncertainty over how long this technology will take to sufficiently develop.”

Small modular reactors could provide many of the benefits of large-scale nuclear energy, but in a form that may prove more acceptable to the public. Royal Society of Edinburgh

The RSE report cautioned that “no energy policy, no matter how well-considered, will ever solve all of the problems and paradoxes of energy supply and use”. There was an “energy quadrilemma”, it contended, that had to take account of climate change, affordability, energy security, and social acceptability and economic wellbeing.

The Nuclear Consulting Group (NCG) has now issued a sharp riposte to the RSE report. It has published a paper by three experts: Dr Paul Dorfman from University College London; Tom Burke from the climate think tank E3G; and Steve Thomas, emeritus professor of energy policy from the University of Greenwich.

They concluded that “Scotland’s energy future has no need for nuclear”. They criticised the RSE report for “conflicting” and “confusing” messages about nuclear power.

The RSE report didn’t provide evidence to back up some of its claims, the NCG paper argued. The RSE failed “to note that all nuclear is significantly more carbon intensive than all renewables”.

NCG maintained that renewables such as wind power were cheaper than new nuclear. It was particularly critical of the idea that SMRs could help Scotland achieve its climate targets.

“Even if a safe and affordable design were to emerge from the current research projects, the whole concept relies on there being a sufficient guaranteed pipeline of orders for the construction and ramping up to scale of a large and expensive production facility,” NCG said.

“Without such a pipeline – itself requiring an unlikely level of long-term policy consistency – it is difficult to see the private sector being willing to finance such a facility.”

The NCG argued that there were plenty of better options. “Energy efficiency, onshore and offshore wind and solar could more than meet any feasible Scottish electricity demands at lower cost and with more certainty than nuclear – and could be in place much, much sooner,” it said.

NCG’s Dorfman accused the RSE report of “frankly disingenuous” messages about nuclear power. “It tends to demonstrate a disappointingly poor grasp of the realities of key aspects of the nuclear issue, coupled with a disquieting dose of what can only be described as a level of evidence-free information dissemination,” he said.

We need to rapidly scale up investments in clean, safe renewable power and improving energy efficiency rather than fall for the latest sales pitch of the failing nuclear industry. Dr Richard Dixon, Friends of the Earth Scotland

Pete Roche, editor of No2NuclearPower, backed NCG’s view. “Scotland doesn’t need more large inflexible nuclear power stations which must operate 24/7, and smaller designs are years away,” he told The Ferret.

“What we need are flexible, smart systems – like the storage batteries being built at Whitelee – to help balance the wealth of our renewables.”

Friends of the Earth Scotland argued that nuclear power was not the answer to the climate crisis. “It is the ultimate unsustainable firm of energy, leaving dangerous waste for a thousand generations of society,” said the environmental group’s director, Dr Richard Dixon.

“We need to rapidly scale up investments in clean, safe renewable power and improving energy efficiency rather than fall for the latest sales pitch of the failing nuclear industry.”

RSE report author Lunn insisted that decisions had to be made on how Scotland was going to source energy. “There are options available, but these must be viewed in the round by looking at Scotland’s energy needs, and sensibly balancing out the pros and cons of each,” she said.

“Dismissing technologies or potential solutions simply because they do not fulfil every possible criterion is likely to lead to Scotland increasing the amount of energy it imports, which should not be done without due consideration of the risks.”

EDF Energy, which runs nuclear power stations at Hunterston in North Ayrshire and Torness in East Lothian, welcomed the RSE report. “EDF Energy is committed to a mix of safe low-carbon electricity across the UK to address the climate challenges we are facing and to ensure secure, affordable supplies,” said a company spokesperson.

“While we already have one new nuclear power station under construction in England with two more planned, we also aim to double our installed renewables capacity in the UK, with much of this development taking place in Scotland, and to guarantee the safety and efficiency of the existing nuclear fleet.”

This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.

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