Is the future nuclear?

Saturday 22 October, 17.30 - 18.45 , Frobisher Auditorium 1 The Future Now: Science and Technology


In an age when climate change has become a defining issue for governments, nuclear power might be expected to be enjoying a new golden age. Nuclear is low-carbon, unlike coal and gas, and doesn’t suffer from the unpredictability and intermittency of wind and solar. Apart from one disastrous incident at Chernobyl in 1986, nuclear has proven to be remarkably safe. Even the accident at the ageing Fukushima plant in 2011, caused by an unprecedented tsunami and exacerbated by an unfortunate plant design, caused no deaths from radiation exposure. Yet that golden age of nuclear still seems elusive.

The saga of building a new plant at Hinkley Point rumbles on, with worries that the plant is too expensive and will take too long to build. Following the Fukushima accident, Japan took all its reactors off-line and only two out of 43 have started operating again. Germany is phasing out nuclear all together by 2022, with Belgium following suit. Even France, which currently produces 75 per cent of its electricity through nuclear, has decided to reduce this to 50 per cent by 2025. But globally, the picture looks rather different. There are around 70 nuclear power plants under construction, a third of them in China, and 183 reactors planned worldwide, the highest number for 25 years. Even the United Arab Emirates, with enormous supplies of oil and gas, has four nuclear plants under construction. While Europe seems to have gone cold on nuclear, and the shale gas revolution in America has made some nuclear plants unprofitable, developing countries have embraced nuclear as a major power source for the future.

Bill Gates has been a leading investor in the development of travelling wave reactors, which could use depleted uranium as fuel, actually helping to reduce nuclear waste stocks. India has ambitious plans to build reactors that use thorium, which the country has large quantities of, rather than uranium. The holy grail of nuclear fusion – which would produce enormous quantities of energy without radioactive waste – is still very much at the development stage. But important steps have recently been taken in China, Germany and France.

Nevertheless, many still argue that nuclear is the wrong technology. Renewables are also making rapid strides in cutting costs and increasing efficiency, with claims that lower-cost storage could alleviate the problem of intermittancy when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine. Fracking offers a lower-carbon alternative to coal at much lower cost than nuclear and with greater reliability than renewables.

So what is the future for nuclear power? Will Hinkley Point really go ahead? Can European governments and voters be persuaded that nuclear should be embraced, especially if the technology proves successful in the developing world? Is nuclear just too expensive – perhaps because misplaced safety fears have increased the costs of construction? Is nuclear now redundant thanks to the falling cost of renewables and the ‘fracking revolution’ in gas? Is nuclear power the victim of a society-wide loss of ambition for the future?