Should we use nuclear energy?

Is nuclear energy the answer to the climate crisis or just a false solution? Here we separate fact from fiction and explore this controversial topic.
  Published:  18 Apr 2024    |      3 minute read

What’s nuclear energy and is it renewable?

First off, a bit of science. Nuclear power uses nuclear reactions to generate electricity. Currently, this is mostly done through nuclear fission, where uranium and plutonium atoms are split in reactors to release large amounts of energy. The resulting heat is used to create steam, which turns turbines to generate electricity.

Nuclear energy doesn’t release greenhouse gases, making it a source of low-carbon energy. It’s often considered to be clean and sustainable, but is it renewable? Well, it’s not classified as such by the UK, and we’d argue that an energy source that creates a difficult and currently unsolved waste problem can’t be described as renewable.

What’s the problem with nuclear waste?

Nuclear power produces radioactive waste that’s dangerous for people and wildlife and lasts for thousands of years. If it isn’t disposed of or managed properly, the risks include contaminated groundwater and radiation exposure, which can have long-term implications for our health.

Yellow nuclear radiation hazard sign on a post in a field
Nuclear radiation hazard sign in field
Credit: iStock

And nuclear waste management is a big problem. Decades after the first nuclear power station opened in the UK, safe storage for waste is still decades away at best, if ever. For example, Sellafield in Cumbria, the largest nuclear waste facility in Europe, currently has a worsening radioactive leak that could risk public safety. Plus, any new nuclear energy increases the amount of radioactive waste we have to deal with.

Is nuclear energy cheap?

In short, no. Nuclear is costly, especially in the UK, where new nuclear power would be more expensive than anywhere else in the world, according to a 2015 report. This is due to a number of factors, including the UK’s nuclear financing arrangements.

According to a 2017 review by Manchester University’s Tyndall Centre, the world's leading climate energy and research institute, “claims that nuclear power is cheaper than other low-carbon options (including carbon capture and storage and wind) are unlikely to be borne out in reality”. And since the Centre’s review, the price of renewables has continued to fall quickly, making them much cheaper than nuclear energy.

Should nuclear energy replace fossil fuels?

To tackle the climate crisis, we need to urgently ditch fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas and replace them with clean, green alternatives. Nuclear energy is certainly less damaging for the environment than fossil fuels. But renewable energy, combined with energy efficiency and energy storage, is a faster and more cost-effective solution.

Alongside the higher costs outlined above, nuclear energy is also slower to build. For example, the Hinkley C plant being built in Somerset was announced in 2010 but may not start operating until 2027 at the earliest. By contrast, onshore wind and solar farms can take as little as 1 year to set up.

[Nuclear is] unlikely to make a relevant contribution to necessary climate change mitigation needed by the 2030s due to nuclear's impracticably lengthy development and construction timelines, and the overwhelming construction costs of the very great volume of reactors that would be needed to make a difference.

Dr. Gregory Jaczko et al., Nuclear Consulting Group

It may be that better, more efficient forms of nuclear energy are developed in the future, but even so it’s unlikely we’d need this power. We believe it’s possible to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy without resorting to nuclear. Renewable energy, as well as energy efficiency and storage, should be the focus of our efforts going forwards.

How can we solve the climate crisis without nuclear energy?

One word: renewables. The UK is blessed with huge resources of renewable energy such as wind, tidal and solar. These could provide all the energy we need, and then some.

Now, the UK will need more electricity than it currently consumes as we switch our transport and heating across from fossil fuels. But our research shows that if properly developed, onshore wind and solar farms alone could produce more than 2.5 times the electricity currently consumed by homes. And that’s not including the significant potential for offshore renewables. The UK not only has the resources to easily meet its own energy needs, but it could also become a green energy superpower exporting clean electricity to other countries.

An onshore wind farm amid a field of yellow rapeseed on a sunny day
Onshore wind
Credit: Maria Wachala via Getty Images

Some argue that nuclear is better because it’s reliable, whereas wind and solar are dependent on the weather. Firstly, renewables are more consistent than they’re often given credit for. For example, solar panels work whenever it’s daylight, not just when the sun shines. But in instances where there are gaps, good energy storage and a mix of different types of renewables can ensure a continuous supply.

As we transition to a greener, fairer society, it’s important that no-one’s left behind. This includes those with jobs in the fossil fuel and nuclear industries. Green technologies, skills and services are creating ample opportunities for green jobs, allowing people to retrain in new sectors such as renewable installation.

Our verdict

In short, nuclear energy is a slow and costly solution to the climate crisis, and one that creates harmful waste we have no answer for. Rather than pursuing nuclear power, we need to invest in renewable energy, energy efficiency and energy storage for people and planet.