Opinion: A nuclear ravine?

A nuclear ravine? Why the UK shouldn’t be judging Germany’s nuclear woes

By Chris Friedler

It’s no secret that Germany and the UK have a friendly rivalry in almost everything these days, and that goes for climate policy too. Yet despite a much bigger and more longstanding investment in renewables, Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions have reduced 27% in 2014 since 1990, the UK’s 36%. So what’s to blame for this? There are a multitude of reasons, but one of them is simply that Germany has a very anti-nuclear stance compared to the UK. It’s easy to forget, but renewables coming online are also, as new power sources, going to be replacing an older power sources on the way to

Hinkley_Point_A_Power_Station_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1951616
The original Hinkley Point A nuclear plant in Somerset, UK. Due for decommissioning in the next decade, its replacement has had multiple problems in planning and construction so far.

decommissioning. In the UK, that tends to be polluting coal plants from the ‘60s, but in Germany, that often tends to be nuclear power, due to ageing infrastructure and a government mandate. Therefore, new low carbon sources end up replacing old low carbon sources, doing little for overall emissions reduction. While it might be tempting to get proud of Britain’s record over Germany here, we could imminently be heading for a similar problem quite soon.

Here in the UK, we should be aware that this very same bottleneck of new and old low carbon energy is also coming for us, though not quite as quickly. How soon then? How long before the race to replace nuclear begins? Nuclear accounted for 21% of the UK’s electricity last year, and with nearly 9GW of electrical capacity, it will continue to provide roughly that figure until the 8 stations start to close. This will happen in 2023, (assuming the lifetime of at least one station isn’t extended) with around 2 GW coming offline, the same happening the year after. Therefore, we’re faced with losing half of our nuclear capacity in the middle of the next decade. Had that happened last year, we would have lost around 10% from our electricity mix.

While back up and additional capacity of course exists, we need to ask serious questions about what happens when 2023 rolls around. So what will fill the gap? New nuclear is an obvious answer, but given that new nuclear plant Hinkley Point C seems unlikely to be ready by 2023, as it  has had multiple setbacks. The same goes for Carbon Capture and Storage and more experimental renewables. What about our wind, solar and biomass technologies then? General lack of policy post 2020 is delaying new investment in all of these, but with increasing deployment in this decade until 2021, renewable electricity will start to replace coal in the electricity mix. But after this, will it then be forced to pick up the slack for offline nuclear, ‘freezing’ emissions reductions in the power sector for years into the next decade? Given the years needed to plan and invest in large energy projects, the lack of government energy policy for the mid-2020s isn’t encouraging.

The short answer is probably yes, that is what will happen. Offshore wind is predicted to be cost competitive by 2025, so investment in most renewable energy should be easier than in today’s market. The price for renewables failing to ‘plug the gap’ left by nuclear will be more gas stations, so it is imperative that renewables are hitting the ground running fast enough by 2023 to carry the weight of closed nuclear plants. There need to be enough renewables being brought online to ensure that emissions don’t go up in the power sector, but in order to continue emissions reductions, energy policy needs to be careful to provide enough new power to not only counter the gap left by nuclear but also go beyond it.

In short, while the nuclear gap seems intimidating, it leads back to an old argument; low carbon power needs clearer policy on its future in order to stave off negative effects and rising emissions. And Germany is dealing with this now rather than in the next decade, meaning we can learn much from how they are responding to this problem.