Blog & PodcastDealing with the Climate Crisis

Anthony Day helps you plan a sustainable future with expert guests and reports on green technologies from across a warming world.

This week Fatih Birol, Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, said that exploitation and development of new oil and gas fields must stop this year and no new coal-fired power stations could be built for the world to stay within safe limits of global heating and meet the goal of net zero emissions by 2050. 

Meeting net zero is one target, but meeting increasing energy demand is another. How do we do this without fossil fuels? Is there a role for nuclear power to make up the shortfall?

Recently I met with three experts to discuss this point.

Anthony Day:

Hello and welcome to this episode of The Sustainable Futures Report, which takes the form of a discussion. I'd like to introduce our panelists who are Sarah Cullen, Ashley Cooper, and Robin Whitlock. First of all, I'll ask them to introduce themselves. Sarah, welcome.

Sarah Cullen:

Hey, thank you. My name is Sarah Cullen. I'm the co-founder of a group called 18for0. It's an Irish clean energy advocacy group. Currently, there are two effective bans on nuclear development in Ireland, and we'd like to get these removed so it can be assessed on equal footing with other clean energy technologies. My background is in energy systems engineering and physics, and I've worked in solar farm development in Ireland and also in training in the nuclear sector.

Anthony Day:

Thank you. Ashley Cooper?

Ashley Cooper:

Hi. I'm an environmental photographer. I've spent the last 16 years traveling to every continent on the planet to document the impacts of climate change and the rise of renewable energy. I run the world's only dedicated climate change photo agency, globalwarmingimages.net.

Anthony Day:

Thank you. And Robin Whitlock?

Robin Whitlock:

Hi, there. I'm a freelance journalist. I specialize in climate change and renewable energy. Within that, I am also a correspondent for Renewable Energy Magazine, which is a web-based version of a Spanish paper magazine, basically, which deals with global renewable energy technologies excluding nuclear. Also, I'm in various other publications as well and also on other subjects from time to time. Particularly, transport.

Anthony Day:

Thank you. Energy is central to the climate change debate. We're going to need more of it as the population grows and in particular as the middle class and middle class expectations grow. Within that, we will see a disproportionate demand for electricity as we electrify the transport fleet, and as we move away from fossil fuels such as gas for heating homes and buildings.

Anthony Day:

If that electricity is generated from coal and gas, we'll achieve nothing, and we'll probably make the situation worse. We need a zero-carbon generation mix. What role will nuclear power play in that? Sarah, would you like to open the discussion?

Sarah Cullen:

Yes, thanks. Jumping off what you said about middle class aspirations ... Before that, there's a very strong link between energy consumption and human development. Up to about 100 gigajoules per capita consumption, which is a level of energy consumption yet to be reached by 80% of the world's population, a country can fundamentally enhance the health, educational standards, and general wellbeing of its population by consuming more energy.

Sarah Cullen:

Therefore, we need to increase energy use to improve quality of life for the majority of the world. However, we're also in a climate emergency, and energy systems are a major driver of climate change. Specifically, dirty electricity systems which are overwhelmingly fossil fuels. At present, over 80% of primary energy consumption is from the burning of oil, gas, and coal. Included in this energy mix is electricity, which internationally is about two-thirds fossil fuels.

Sarah Cullen:

Fossil fuels also produce harmful wastes such as airborne pollutants which kill about seven million people every year. Additionally, in developed nations where improving human development is maybe a lesser concern, the rapid expansion of electricity systems, as you said, is critical to decarbonize energy sectors such as heat and transport through electrification.

Sarah Cullen:

We need reliable electricity that doesn't destroy the environment, both to replace the old fossil fuel units and to meet increased demand for electricity globally. Despite strong support for and growth in low-carbon energy sources in the recent years, the fossil fuel contribution to power generation has remained virtually unchanged since the early 2000s.

Sarah Cullen:

But there is good news. We have the technologies now to replace fossil fuels and to mitigate the catastrophic consequences of climate change in a socially just manner. Developed nations especially have the potential to almost eliminate carbon emissions from the grid. Some countries have come so close, like Sweden and Switzerland. However, there are technical limits that will exist in one country and won't exist elsewhere, and there's no real one-size-fits-all approach for which electricity technologies should and could replace fossil fuels in the electricity mix.

Sarah Cullen:

It's clear that we need to use all clean energy technologies available to us. The current major technology options for that are wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, and nuclear. I advocate for all of these. Nuclear power is a low-carbon form of electricity generation with lower associated carbon emissions than solar power. It's really safe. Even accounting for accidents, it is the best safety record of any major form of electricity generation.

Sarah Cullen:

Nuclear power also doesn't emit harmful pollutants or waste products to the environment. All wastes are accounted for, unlike any other form of electricity generation. It's a well-established, mature technology, and civil nuclear power can now boast more than 18,000 years of reactor experience, and nuclear power plants are operational in 31 countries worldwide providing about 10% of global electricity.

Sarah Cullen:

Beyond that, many more countries depend in part on nuclear power. Italy and Denmark, for example, get almost 10% of their electricity from imported nuclear power. Ireland also imports nuclear power from the UK. The International Panel on Climate Change's landmark report on limiting the rise in global temperatures this century to 1.5 degrees outlines various scenarios to achieve that target.

Sarah Cullen:

All scenarios involve substantially increasing the share of nuclear in the energy mix. Nuclear and renewables are not in competition. All available clean energy technologies are needed at a global level to avoid the worst effects of climate change in a socially just manner, and we cannot afford to wait for potential new technologies. We have to act now with what we have.

Anthony Day:

Thank you very much. Ashley, how would you respond to that?

Ashley Cooper:

Well, it's interesting because until climate change reared its ugly head, the vast majority of world's environmentalists were radically opposed to nuclear. There are now some that propose that nuclear is a part of the solution to tackling climate change with electricity to be generated in what is seen as low-carbon ways. My problem with nuclear really is that, first of all, it is impossible to build new nuclear power stations in the time that we have left to tackle the climate emergency.

Ashley Cooper:

We need to be doing something way more quicker to decarbonize our energy system than is ever going to be possible under nuclear. You only have to look at EDF's lamentable track record in trying to get new nuclear power into the grid. The two stations that they're building Flamanville in France and some unpronounceable place in Finland, both of these places are years and years and years behind schedule, and way, way, way over budget in the case of Flamanville. It's something like six times over budget.

Ashley Cooper:

They just can't get the technology up and running in the time that we have left to tackle a climate emergency. It's a hideously expensive technology. They're incredibly expensive to build. Flamanville, for instance, EDF said they would bring it online for three billion Euros. They're currently at about 19 billion Euros and still rising, so it's very, very expensive. Actually, dealing with the legacy of nuclear is also tremendously expensive.

Ashley Cooper:

If you look at the government's own figures on the costs of just the UK dealing with the nuclear legacy, it is costing the UK taxpayer more than enough money to put a four kilowatt solar panel system on every single one of the 28 million households in the UK. Nuclear has obvious problems with safety track records. None of us need to start naming power stations that have had problems there, but it does have a safety track record.

Ashley Cooper:

And if you actually factor in the amount of steel and cement used in the construction of new nuclear power stations, it isn't actually that low-carbon and it is not a renewable technology. The amounts of plutonium are finite. Mining it is dangerous, and we will run out of it at some point.

Ashley Cooper:

I guess my last problem with nuclear is that currently some of the new nuclear power stations that have been built, and quite a lot around the world, are very close to sea level and incredibly vulnerable to sea level rise. We've all seen what happens when you mix a nuclear power station with sea water in Japan. For all those reasons, I am not a fan of nuclear power.

Anthony Day:

Thank you very much, Ashley. Sarah, I'm sure you want to come back on a number of those points, but before you do, let me ask Robin. What's your take on the situation?

Robin Whitlock:

Okay. Well, the argument I'm going to advance basically stem from an article I wrote in FairPlanet Magazine in 2016. I haven't really done much of an update since then, but there's notes that Ashley said which vibe with me as well. That article in FairPlanet, basically a substantial part of that article dismissed some of the claims being made by nuclear supporters. That things like fast breeder reactors and thorium would basically succeed where pressurized water reactors hadn't really.

Robin Whitlock:

And there's problems in both of those. Neither fast breeders or thorium plants have been commercially successful. They're not commercially viable yet. Fast breeders in particular, they utilize sodium as a coolant, which is potentially dangerous if it leaks, because it can cause sodium fires which are horrendously difficult to put out. I'm going to start by basically firmly dismissing those two particular technologies.

Robin Whitlock:

Then, we have the pressurized water reactors and the salutary lesson for me on this has been Hinkley C, which basically provides a drastic example of the downsides of nuclear. Particularly, pressurized water reactors. It's been ridiculously expensive to construct, subject to continual delays, the costs are rising, the projected start date has been put back continuously.

Robin Whitlock:

The cited cost at the moment, if it hasn't changed much since 2016, 92.50 pounds per megawatt power over a 35 year period, which is basically twice the electricity price in 2016. I'm not sure how much that's changed, but I wouldn't have expected it to change much.

Robin Whitlock:

There's been a whole host of energy analysts and figures in the media and in economical bodies that have regularly described the Hinkley C project as one of the worst deals ever signed by the British government. As Ashley says, nuclear plants in general take a long time to develop. Much more so than renewable energy plants.

Robin Whitlock:

Really, it seems to me that if we're going to get a decarbonized society up and running in time, then the best bet is to plough on and deploy renewable energy technology. Truly renewable energy technology. Renewable technology energies are wind, solar, geothermal, ocean energy. But also, backed with a modification of the grid supported by storage, smart energy, perhaps in demand reduction. All that kind of stuff in there. That seems to me to be the best way forward.

Anthony Day:

Sarah, I'm sure you'd like to come back on some of those points. Please, what are your thoughts?

Sarah Cullen:

Ashley, what did you consider to be the most pressing point of what you said? We have some times so we can discuss all of them, I imagine. What would you like to talk about?

Ashley Cooper:

I think for me, the time it takes to develop new nuclear power stations and the cost. It's the most expensive way of generating electricity man has ever invented, and that's before you factor in the long-term costs ... Sorry, man or woman. Before you factor in the long-term costs of dealing actually with the spent nuclear fuel.

Ashley Cooper:

To date, both the US government and the UK government have not found a long-term solution for safely dealing with the radioactive waste from nuclear power plants. Certainly, I sit on the doorstep of Sellafield and a lot of the nuclear waste from not just Sellafield but other power stations is held there in ponds ...

Sarah Cullen:

Can we just address the cost thing first?

Ashley Cooper:

Yeah, sure.

Sarah Cullen:

Because we can get to all of them but ... First of all, obviously it's not true it's the most expensive form of electricity. If you want to look at fusion, it takes more energy in that it puts out. Off the bat, there are plenty more. I will say, I come from a technical background, and I know that for a lot of people when they see these price comparisons they take it as this specific way of looking at costs.

Sarah Cullen:

What usually you see, and Robin you were referring to some prices when you were talking as well, that's a thing called a levelized cost of electricity. What it does is it takes all the costs associated with generating a unit of electricity by producing how much electricity the plant is going to put out, and then divides it by how much electricity the plant does put out. And then, you find the cost per unit of electricity.

Sarah Cullen:

You can use that as a way to compare different forms of electricity generation. This isn't how plants actually do get paid. And there are all sorts of different market structures for how plants get their money back. The levelized cost of electricity is a political number. A way for people outside the industry to grasp the relative scale system. And it does have a good place in policy making, definitely.

Sarah Cullen:

Something that the levelized cost of electricity doesn't capture in most countries, and certainly not in Ireland, I don't think anywhere in Europe, is the cost of the transmission system. You can say that nuclear costs a lot of money to build your reactor up-front, but it doesn't need massive expansion to the grid in the way that renewables does. Nuclear fully accounts for these costs.

Sarah Cullen:

It fully accounts for the waste costs within what appears to be a very high levelized cost of electricity. That is all of the waste costs completely taken account of. Whereas, industries like fossil fuel power generation just pump their waste into the atmosphere and don't pay for it. Where then we end up paying for that is through our healthcare and through the mortality rates and through damage to the environment.

Sarah Cullen:

Actually, when you look at the costs of running other forms of electricity through levelized cost of electricity, you're not seeing the actual costs of running them. Whereas with nuclear, you are seeing the actual cost of running them. But that's just an explanation of the levelized cost of electricity. Any infrastructure project can go overboard, and I'm not British, so I don't really follow what's happening with Hinkley Point C, but I think it's a bit of a head wreck.

Sarah Cullen:

In Ireland, we have a project. There's a massive construction project to do with the children's hospital that's gone way over budget, years behind where it should be. This can happen with any infrastructure project, and it's not unique to nuclear. In fact, there are plenty of nuclear examples that are ahead of schedule and ahead of budget.

Sarah Cullen:

Last year, a plant in Tianwan came online in China. That took five years to construct. For comparison, Hinkley Point C is two reactors. This was one reactor but similar size, so similar outputs to one of those reactors. It's not that it's a different technology and that's why. And then, if you think that China maybe pushes it through without regulation, which I know a lot of people are skeptical of with China ... One of the poster childs for nuclear construction was in the 90s in Japan.

Sarah Cullen:

It was called Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Unit Number Six. It took three years to construct, and again, similar sized unit. The cost and the construction times, that's an infrastructure issue. Some countries deal with that better than others. I know in Europe there's been lots of issues with it, and a lot of it's to do with how they're regulated and how construction carries on. That's nothing to do with nuclear as a technology. It just makes the debate a little bit more opaque but ...

Ashley Cooper:

Even France's own energy minister called Flamanville, quote, he said, "It was a mess," in terms of a construction-

Sarah Cullen:

Yeah. The Irish Children's Hospital construction is a mess, but we definitely should have more children's hospitals.

Ashley Cooper:

... I don't disagree on the children's hospitals, I disagree on the nuclear-

Sarah Cullen:

But it's an infrastructure issue. It's a construction issue. It's nothing inherent to nuclear power.

Ashley Cooper:

... But the other problem you're dealing with is, it doesn't matter how you look at it, all independent observers essentially say that EDF is bankrupt as a company. The only way it's still going is because it's continually bankrolled by the French taxpayer. Under any way that any economists look at companies, EDF is a bankrupt company.

Sarah Cullen:

Plenty of companies go bankrupt all the time. And I think instead of looking at an individual company, what I think explains why we might want nuclear even from an economic point of view worldwide and is a much more compelling case, is that it is currently 10% of power worldwide. That's by 450 reactors. An extra 50 reactors are under construction ... Especially, in countries where they need rapid expansion of clean electricity.

Sarah Cullen:

China is a big market for them at the moment, places like India. Those governments wouldn't be building those if they were at ridiculous costs. They still build coal plants, they build all sorts of plants, because they recognize they need to lift people out of energy poverty. They take into account, "We need a mix of everything. And we need to use all those resources that we have." They believe that nuclear is a good return on their limited resources while they're desperately trying to lift people out of energy poverty.

Sarah Cullen:

If they are choosing nuclear as a way to go about doing that, that's a very compelling case. You can compare it to the finances of an individual company in a different market structure, and you can start talking about the different market structures available, but ultimate that's not the technology itself. Nuclear is getting built worldwide, because it makes sense to build nuclear worldwide. It's not an argument against the technology of nuclear.

Anthony Day:

Sarah. You're saying that things can be built far more quickly than the rather disastrous examples of Flamanville and Hinkley C?

Sarah Cullen:

Yeah, so the plants I just ...

Anthony Day:

What wanted to do was just ask Robin ... Have you come across the idea of the neighborhood nuclear plants? The modularized nuclear generators? Is there a place for something like that?

Robin Whitlock:

Well, actually, I was thinking of opening my contribution to this debate by saying that my opposition is based pretty much on what I've seen so far on the various problems. I wouldn't say I'm coming from an ideological position. For that reason, I would still be fairly in favor of fusion if it ever got developed. At the moment, it doesn't look like it's going to be for quite a long time. At the moment, that's out.

Robin Whitlock:

But the modular thing looks quite interesting. Unfortunately, I haven't really had the time to update myself on what's going on with that, but that's something I do intend to do. Potentially ... I don't know. I'd have to have a look at it and see what's involved.

Sarah Cullen:

Robin, I can send you a brilliant report on Irish nuclear development that looks into these reactors. Although, I'm a little bit biased. I did write it.

Robin Whitlock:

Yes. By all means do, and I'll give a look at it.

Anthony Day:

Can you make that available so that we can share it with the listeners of The Sustainable Futures Report?

Sarah Cullen:

I will, indeed. Yes.

Anthony Day:

Thank you very much. Thank you. Ashley, clearly, you have serious doubts if not outright opposition to nuclear. But the race is on. We need to decarbonize our electricity at the same time as expanding, increasing our electricity. If we say no to nuclear, how are we going to achieve that objective?

Ashley Cooper:

Well, certainly, people with far brighter minds than I have done the maths and have come to the quite simple conclusion that we can power certainly the whole of the UK from renewable energy. It will take a lot of investment than it takes ... Any power infrastructure is going to take investment, but we know that we can power the whole of the UK by renewable energy.

Ashley Cooper:

The other thing I think we need to start talking about as well ... Everybody just assumes that we're going to have access to limitless amounts of power, or we should have. We should be looking now at huge projects on saving energy. Because in the UK and many countries in the world, we waste vast quantities of energy. We need to look at saving energy.

Ashley Cooper:

I documented, a few years ago now, a brilliant project on the Isle of Eigg in Scotland. It's off-grid. All the households there used to use noisy, dirty, polluting, expensive diesel generators to generate their electricity. They invested quite small sums of money in two small-scale hydro plants, in a small-scale wind farm, and in some solar panels. Now, something like 95% of all the island's electricity is generated from renewables.

Ashley Cooper:

But how they control it is that they only allow each household to use up to five kilowatt hours of electricity at a time. If they use more than that, it flicks the switch in their household and cuts their electric off. And then, they have to pay a fee to the Eigg Electric Company to go and put them back on again. What that does is it limits the amount that any household can use at any one time.

Ashley Cooper:

When I spoke to those households and said, "Does this not put you at a disadvantage?" They said, "No, we have all the products that anybody would expect in their house." The electric dishwasher, the washing machine, the hoover, you name it. But they said, "We just know that we can't put every single device on at the same time." We have become so used to just using energy whenever we want, however much we want, all at one go.

Ashley Cooper:

We need to become smarter about how we use it, and we need to get energy efficiency programs, that means actually we don't need to be generating the amount of electricity that people are predicting that we do. If we have a massive investment in renewable and a massive investment in energy saving, then I truly believe that is the way forward.

Ashley Cooper:

I would also argue, I really wouldn't call nuclear a clean technology. Certainly, mining plutonium isn't clean. And trying to deal with tens of thousands of years of radioactive waste isn't clean either. For me, it's got to be renewable and we need to have both investment in the infrastructure and investment in energy savings.

Anthony Day:

Right. We're going to close the gap to a large extent then by managing demand. Now, one of the major users or potential majors users is transport. The EVs. Robin, you said you write and research on transport. Does it make sense that we simply change all our cars and all our freight trucks to electric vehicles? Because just doing that will not stop congestion, it will put tremendous strain on the infrastructure.

Anthony Day:

While you can say that EVs are clean, the answer is yes up to a certain point. Because after all, a tremendous amount of pollution, particulate pollution, comes from brakes and tyres. EVs have them too. Is there a potential ... Are we going to see a revolution in transport?

Anthony Day:

Given that people have extremely expensive cars sitting outside doing nothing for 95% of the time on average ... Is this time for a radical change, which will not only save the electricity involved in running these vehicles around the place, but all the energy and power actually manufacturing them?

Robin Whitlock:

Yes, I think you're right that there's quite a few people out there who basically are thinking of EV as some kind of golden solution. As you say, they're not going to be. What we need to do really as much as possible is also achieve mobile shift. Basically, that means trying as much as possible to move people away from, certainly, short haul flying, which is a popular method of trying to get up to the north of England quickly.

Robin Whitlock:

But also, cars as well. To do that, we need to actually improve our public transport. By that I mean both buses and coaches, and more importantly, the railways. This is very topical at the moment, because there's a lot of controversy about HS2 in particular. HS2. I'm going to basically digress and go onto that a bit, because it gets actually important.

Robin Whitlock:

If we're going to have a sustainable public transport system, rail is vital in playing a part of that. That means we need a fully effective national rail network. The problem for quite a few years now is that the existing railway network has been full. Completely full to capacity with both the east coast main line and the west coast main line at capacity, resulting in all sorts of things. Train breakdowns, delays, and all that kind of thing.

Robin Whitlock:

The point behind HS2 is to basically take all the north to south fast express trains off the east coast main line and the west coast main line, thereby freeing space on both those lines for slower, more local, more regional stopping trains. That in turn, in combination with building more branch lines and smaller line, will generate the capacity need and rejuvenate railroad work.

Robin Whitlock:

Hopefully, that in turn will succeed in moving more people off cars and onto public transport. But it needs to happen in combination with a total revolution in buses as well. This is actually why the current government's attempt to rejuvenate the bus sector through ... The government have actually recently published this national bus strategy, which is really interesting and it has great potential. If that works, that would also help.

Robin Whitlock:

Where does that leave EVs? Basically, EVs really should be a stop-gap for those people who for one reason or another can't use public transport, or who stubbornly refuse to. It should really play a minor role. I agree. I don't think it's wise to suddenly just flip over from fossil fuel transport, fossil fuel cars, over to EV. That's not by itself going to work.

Anthony Day:

Thank you very much. I could debate with you at length the sense or not of HS2, but certainly we haven't got time for that on this occasion. But maybe we'll do it another time. I'd just like to ask Sarah, first of all ... We haven't spoken about hydrogen. A number of people talk about hydrogen in the energy mix. Do you see that as an avenue that we should be exploring?

Sarah Cullen:

Absolutely. I keep saying, I think we should use every technology that we have. Cutting any out is just going to limit us, and ultimately we're going to suffer then if we omit any. With hydrogen, there's a lot of really exciting scope for applications in industry and in transport. What is a little bit concerning about hydrogen at the moment is that idea of green hydrogen in Europe, where you build these massive, expensive plants and wait until there's some surplus wind, which might not happen for weeks.

Sarah Cullen:

You're supposed to run your industry based on this? What I think would make a lot more sense would be if you have a constant base of power, powering an electrolyzer. You could even use waste heat from a low carbon energy source that has waste heat. An excellent one of those is obviously nuclear, which provides base of power and has lots of excess heat. It's just another way that nuclear can help with the decarbonization of the grid. But any excess renewables do feed into it as well.

Sarah Cullen:

I think it's just a little bit foolish when you look around Europe and you see plans based on that, because ultimateiy the shortfall is going to be made up for with fossil fuels. Is that really any better then to burn fossil fuels to get hydrogen than just burn them in the first place?

Anthony Day:

Any thoughts on that, Ashley?

Ashley Cooper:

Yes. Hydrogen is definitely a fuel of the future. I've documented cases in Iceland where the Icelandic government hope to get their entire fishing fleet onto hydrogen fairly shortly as well as all their vehicles. I've photographed the council vehicles in Orkney, quite a few of which now run on hydrogen, which is created from some of the renewable energy plants that they've got around the Orkney Islands.

Ashley Cooper:

It's definitely a fuel to be looking out for in the future. And I think myself, it has more potential than trying to go down the EV road with vehicles, because you've got the problem of having to mine a lot of rare earths for batteries for EVs as well as obviously all the electricity generation. I think hydrogen definitely has a future.

Anthony Day:

Yes. Okay. But of course, all cars these days have got a tremendous amount of electronics, whatever the power source. Resources I think are probably beyond the scope of this discussion, but resources are going to be a limiting factor, particularly the rare earths that you mentioned. I don't know where we go from there.

Anthony Day:

Robin. As a transport journalist, have you driven the Toyota Mirai, which is the hydrogen car? It looks extremely nice, but since there are only six filling stations in the country of the UK, there's not a lot of practicality there.

Robin Whitlock:

Actually, I haven't driven for some years. I don't drive at all. I basically use public transport and my bicycle and that's about it. Picking up on this point about hydrogen though, Sarah is right, actually. If we're going to go down the hydrogen route, there needs to be green hydrogen. That is problematic, because of the cost and the effort required to basically produce it from an electrolysis.

Robin Whitlock:

It requires that we have enough renewable energy infrastructure in place, first of all. Probably, the way forward there is to, I think, advance the marine energy sector. Because that seems like a pretty good way of generating large amounts of unpredictable, actually, renewable energy, which can then be fed into electrolyzers to produce hydrogen.

Robin Whitlock:

I would say what's most likely to happen with vehicles is it's going to be sort of a mix. Mostly EVs, but with some hydrogen and bioenergy vehicles in there as well. At the moment, I think that's probably the most likely scenario.

Anthony Day:

Thank you. Well, so far we appear to have two members of the panel who are adamant that nuclear has not got a future in our energy mix and our remaining panelist disagrees. Where do we go from here? I have to say that if you look at Hinkley C and you look at Flamanville, both of which are disasters ... You look at the plan to build a power station near Sellafield and another one at Wylfa in North Wales ... And I think it was Hitachi and was it Toyota? The other ones?

Anthony Day:

They both withdrew. One of those companies decided to close its nuclear construction facility altogether. While there may be a lot of nuclear development in China, it may be very successful and it may be safe, the experience in Europe ... I think particularly when you look at Germany, which has banned all additional nuclear power, the situation in Europe looks as though it just won't happen. But how do you see that?

Sarah Cullen:

Well, you shouldn't use Germany as an example. Because if you use them, then you're advocating for increased use of coal, which for The Sustainable Futures Report, it doesn't have great credentials. I can only look at it as there are two projects that people are discussing as being over budget, overtime, where there are currently 50 reactors under construction worldwide.

Sarah Cullen:

I just talked about China as being one that there's particularly high growth there, because it ties more into my interest of lifting people out of energy poverty. But they are being deployed all over the world, and I don't see ... There's no technical reason why Europe can't do it either. If we keep looking at nuclear through this very negative lens of, "Oh. It'll probably be too expensive." Then, what you see is higher cost of lending to people developing nuclear. And then, companies going, "You know what? It's actually not worth it."

Sarah Cullen:

Being discriminated against in terms of pricing, not receiving the subsidies that renewables are receiving, having all market indicators go against just for no good technical reason. Maybe it's better to just build fossil fuels. We need to keep that in mind with the nuclear debate ... We're not fighting against renewables. We're not displacing clean energy. When we put barriers in place to developing nuclear, fossil fuels get built.

Robin Whitlock:

Can I jump in?

Anthony Day:

Robin, yes.

Robin Whitlock:

Can I just ask you, Sarah, what technology those other countries outside Europe are using? Are we talking about PWRs? Or some other technologies?

Sarah Cullen:

Some of them are PWRs. There is a reactor database. The World Nuclear Association is the trade body for it. They have a reactor database and you can click through and see all the ones that are being built, which I'll send a link onto that as well. But there's a small amount of construction of the small modular reactors. I know you probably have heard about the development of those in the US, I think, in the next few years.

Sarah Cullen:

Actually, I think two days ago, the UK Office for Nuclear Regulation made an announcement about beginning licensing processes for the small modular reactors. Hopefully ... A lot of them that are currently being developed are the big traditional plants, which are needed in developing countries especially to ramp-up your electricity output. But the small modular reactors are hopefully going to get built more in future years, which serve a different purpose in a way of having more flexible electricity output.

Anthony Day:

Well, thank you for that. I think-

Ashley Cooper:

Can we-

Anthony Day:

... Yeah. Ashley? Sorry.

Ashley Cooper:

... Can we just look at the issue of the waste from nuclear power plants for a minute? Sellafield is just down the road from me. That holds a lot of the UK's nuclear waste. Now, most of that is held in ponds. My understanding is that biological activity in the waters of these holding ponds is not a good idea. Now, Sellafield recently invited a microbiologist to go along and look at these ponds to tell Sellafield whether there was biological activity taking place or not.

Ashley Cooper:

Now, when the microbiologist turned up, he stood on the edge of the pond, looked in and said, "Yep. You've got biological activity there." And the site manager at Sellafield said, "Oh. Well, do you not need to take samples and take them back to your lab and look at them under the microscope?" And he said, "No." He said, "Why not?" He said, "Because you've got fish swimming down there."

Ashley Cooper:

Well, that doesn't really give me a lot of confidence that the people that are running these plants really know how to do with this safely. Given that both the US government and the UK government still do not have a long-term plan for the safe storage of nuclear waste, I'd be really interested, Sarah, what your view is on what should happen [crosstalk 00:41:51] ...

Sarah Cullen:

I think your information is quite a bit out of date there on that they don't have a long-term plan. There is a pilot facility for deep geological repository licensed in the US and I think it's either active or under construction. There's ones under construction in Europe, and Finland and Sweden are doing a joint venture [crosstalk 00:42:12].

Sarah Cullen:

I've visited a test facility in the Alps for deep geological repository. It's just not true that people don't know what to do with the waste. I think it's interesting when you talk about the waste, to start thinking about what the waste is. I think a lot of people don't really understand, because we're shown these oil drums full of liquid strewn around the countryside. Whenever you Google nuclear waste, that's certainly what comes up. And I know a lot of people have a weird image in their head of what it is.

Sarah Cullen:

There is three types of nuclear waste. There's low-level nuclear waste, intermediate, and high-level. Low-level nuclear waste is produced routinely from dentistry and medical imaging and in industry. Loads of places. And it's 90% of the waste that comes out of a nuclear power plant as well. And there's well-established waste streams for the disposal of that and for the safe management of that.

Sarah Cullen:

Intermediate level waste is about 7% and it largely comes from the demolition of nuclear plants, and it's radiated components and sludges. And then, what most people think of as being nuclear waste is high-level nuclear waste. It's categorized as high-level nuclear waste when it's producing heat at a rate that really needs to be monitored and really needs to be taken care of. This is about 3% of the total waste, and of that about 95% can be reprocessed and recycled.

Sarah Cullen:

The actual high-level waste produced for one person's annual use of nuclear power, all their electricity power needs, is about a brick size. You can look, if you Google, there's a great picture of all Swiss high-level nuclear waste in this one hall. It's stored in dry casks ... They are stored in ponds for the first 10 years, usually on-site like you said. And then, they're moved pretty much everywhere.

Sarah Cullen:

There's some places where they do wet storage. Pretty much everywhere now there's dry storage casks for about 50 years. The point of this is to get the heat level to drop to a point where you can put it underground and you can dispose of it long term. Because nuclear reactors have been running for about 50 years or 60 years, there hasn't been a massive ... And it's such a tiny volume of waste.

Sarah Cullen:

We did a study in Ireland. We looked at if Ireland implemented nuclear power into our energy mix, we would need over the lifetime of the nuclear program, we'd need a basketball arena size area to store the waste. Because it hasn't been an issue, there has never been a fatality or any major environmental release of nuclear waste ever, which is incredible for any energy source.

Sarah Cullen:

If you look at environmental releases from fossil fuel plants, it kills seven million people every year. And there has never been a death from the nuclear waste. It's hard to see it as an issue at all real.

Ashley Cooper:

So why aren't governments ... You'll find no proponents for the fossil fuel industry here, I don't think. I don't think anybody-

Sarah Cullen:

But the things is when you talk against nuclear and say it's this big issue, what it does is prevents nuclear plants from getting built and what fills the space is fossil fuels. It's not renewables, because they provide different services.

Ashley Cooper:

... We can put our money into renewables. We can choose to put our money into renewables, shouldn't [crosstalk 00:45:45]-

Sarah Cullen:

This comes back to an earlier point that you had of is renewables at any cost. You said, some people had done some calculations and they thought that theoretically it would be possible to power the UK on renewables at a very high cost. Technically, that's not possible at the moment, because if it's not sunny and it's not windy, you need massive amounts of storage to be able to provide people with electricity.

Sarah Cullen:

There is weeks on end where it hasn't been windy across all of Europe. It's not like you can import the energy from somewhere else if it wasn't entirely renewables. What you're talking about is having massive, massive amounts of infrastructure. Way oversized renewable energy systems for what your actual needs are to charge batteries, which batteries are incredibly bad for the environment as you said yourself and don't actually produce any electricity themselves despite being massive investments.

Sarah Cullen:

You're looking at putting insane amounts of money into a system that's not technically feasible in the hopes of avoiding systems that are feasible and that we currently have and are safe. Renewables are great and should make up a certain share of our energy needs, but there is a point where you need dispatchable base load generation to be able to run your grid and have a secure and stable grid.

Sarah Cullen:

There is also ... I find fault with this whole idea of renewables at any price, at any cost. Because ultimately, when you are raising the cost of electricity, you are pushing people into fuel poverty. The people who don't mind this, like industries won't necessarily mind it so much, but you're putting vulnerable people at risk when you do that. Cost of electricity is of very high important in the conversation.

Ashley Cooper:

I think [crosstalk 00:47:34] ... I think that intermittency-based criticism is valid if you go down the route which is dominated by wind and solar. But I would say that if you concentrate on fully developing a multi-technology package, where different technologies cover for each other with storage in the background, then that issue of base load becomes less of an issue.

Ashley Cooper:

To some extent, you can also cover a certain portion of that through anaerobic digestion maybe collected from household food waste, which the UK hasn't really done to an extent yet. That can certainly replace, according to ADBA the Anaerobic Digestion and Bioresources Association, they believe that can replace potentially 30% of the UK's current imported gas. If you add up-

Sarah Cullen:

Possibly some of those countries which look to make money from it have put out some numbers that possibly in the future might technically be valid. That's great. But what we need now is massive amounts of electricity to decarbonize the sectors we already have and to displace the fossil fuels we're using now. We need to act now with the technologies we have, and we have nuclear now.

Ashley Cooper:

... I agree with that.

Anthony Day:

We could go on and on. I'm really grateful that this has proved to be such an intense debate, but I'm going to ask us all please to draw this to a close. A final thought, first of all, from you, Robin.

Robin Whitlock:

Okay. Well, actually one thing I want to mention that I don't think has been mentioned is the time issue, actually. There's a lot of people who have been listening to groups like Extinction Rebellion who are basically putting the idea that we've only got 10 year to save the planet and all that kind of thing. But if you listen climate scientists like Michael E. Mann and Katharine Hayhoe, that's actually the wrong impression.

Robin Whitlock:

What's actually going on is basically we've got 10 years to get to a point where we can avoid some pretty unpleasant things happening in 2100. It isn't going to be in 10 years, the equivalent of an asteroid suddenly hitting the earth and wiping things out. The government's plan of steadily developing renewable energy infrastructure over the period to 2050 is much more realistic and sensible. I would be careful about that whole time pressure thing that I feel is coming across a little in this debate.

Anthony Day:

Thank you. A final thought from you Ashley.

Ashley Cooper:

The insane amounts of money that Sarah talked about to me are the insane amounts of money that the UK government is spending on dealing with the nuclear waste issue. By their own admission, the figures would pay to put a four kilowatt solar system on the 28 million households in the UK, which would virtually get rid of the need for the vast majority of power stations.

Ashley Cooper:

It seems to me to be an absolute no-brainer. In terms of Robin's point, I kind of disagree. I've seen with my own eyes that this isn't a problem for tomorrow. This is a problem that's happening now. I've seen thousands and thousands of people dying around the world from climate change, whether it's they've died in floods, or died in droughts, starving to death. This is happening now and it's getting worse and worse with every single passing day.

Robin Whitlock:

I wasn't advocating for mayhem. I totally believe you on that point.

Anthony Day:

Finally, Sarah. You've got a hard sell, I fear.

Sarah Cullen:

It's really disappointing, because it shouldn't be a hard sell. The opposition that you see a lot to nuclear, a lot of it is based on just not facts and on this almost propaganda that's been going on over years. I don't have a stake in the nuclear industry. I do have a stake in having clean air and having electricity for the future.

Sarah Cullen:

For me, it's crazy. When we talk about trying to optimize our systems, and trying to have the best energy systems that comes in a socially just manner in a way that doesn't trash our planet, we rule out an entire technology and don't even consider it. Certainly, it won't be suitable for everywhere, but there's many places where it would be suitable and be incredibly beneficial.

Sarah Cullen:

Having conversations where people completely disregard an entire technology is absolutely unscientific. What you end up with is governments like the Irish government, who don't even include it in their models. How can you have a good energy system when you haven't even considered all your options? It's a shame it's such a hard sell, because it really shouldn't be. It's an energy technology.

Anthony Day:

It's been a privilege to have the three of you on this discussion this afternoon. Thank you all very much indeed. Sarah Cullen, Robin Whitlock, Ashley Cooper. Yes. Thank you all again. It's been really interesting.

 

Do you have any thoughts on this? You can comment on the website, on any of the podcast clients where you find the Sustainable Futures Report or write to me direct at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Links to the documents mentioned during the conversation are below, and there’s also a link to the IEA’s latest report on zero-carbon 2050.

Thanks for listening to this, one of the longest episodes to date. I’ll be back next week and I hope you will. If you have any opinions, ideas or suggestions about what the Sustainable Futures Report should cover, please get in touch.

I’m Anthony Day.

That was the Sustainable Futures Report.

Until next time.

 

 

 

Sources

‘No new investment in fossil fuels’ demands top energy economist

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/may/18/no-new-investment-in-fossil-fuels-demands-top-energy-economist

https://www.iea.org/reports/net-zero-by-2050

 

Links mentioned during the discussion:

Additionally, you may find these links interesting:

 

 

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A weekly podcast and blog brought to you by Anthony Day. A selection of stories and interviews aiming to be sustainable, topical and interesting.
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Anthony Day

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