Questions and answers about
the economy.

#studentviews: How might nuclear power contribute to our energy supply?

Longstanding efforts to ensure energy security and meet net-zero emissions targets have now been supplemented by the challenge of high prices for oil, gas and electricity. Nuclear power has been seen as a controversial option, but it may offer safe, clean and lower-cost energy.

For months, UK households have stared in despair at ever-rising electricity bills and heard rumours of blackouts this winter, leaving them wondering when the energy crisis will end.

As countries worldwide emerge from lockdowns, demand for electricity continues to increase. Russia’s devastating invasion of Ukraine has disrupted energy supplies to mainland Europe, amplifying the already sky-high prices.

The situation has highlighted a radical need for change in the energy industry if European countries are to achieve energy security. For net-zero targets to be met by 2050, the energy sector needs to decarbonise at an extraordinary pace.

It must do so while expanding energy access to millions of people but keeping prices affordable. An extensive two-year study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology explored 1,000 different pathways to accomplish this. The researchers find that all the cheapest paths require nuclear power.

Ideally, the world could be powered by wind, solar and hydroelectric energy. But the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine – especially in the UK. As noted by the US Energy Information Administration, out of 365 days a year, hydroelectric systems will run for 138, wind turbines for 127 and solar electricity arrays for just 92 days. Nuclear power plants operate equivalent to 336 days annually – a clear winner on reliability.

Renewables only work if they have a consistent energy source alongside them. Today, that baseload electricity is supplied by fossil fuels. Nuclear power can provide energy on a large scale with zero carbon outputs.

France, for example, replaced almost all its fossil-fuelled electricity with nuclear power in just 15 years. Given that around 70% of French electricity is powered by nuclear, the country is less exposed to the current extortionate gas, oil and coal prices. The consequence is that the French are enjoying lower energy costs and cleaner air.

Research published by Deloitte exemplifies the benefits of nuclear power for the economy of the European Union (EU). They find that each euro invested in the nuclear sector generates an additional €5 into EU GDP.

This is a concept referred to by economists as the ‘multiplier effect’. It can be explained by the high number of both direct and indirect jobs that the nuclear industry sustains, especially compared with other carbon-free energy alternatives. Deloitte predicts that nuclear will provide 1.1 million jobs in the European economy compared with only 250,000 jobs in the wind sector and just over 80,000 jobs in solar.

On a local level, it is important to note that the type of jobs that the nuclear industry is offering are highly skilled ones, such as engineers and technicians, providing higher incomes and better quality of life. This is important because when deciding on the route to net zero, governments must consider the socio-economic impacts of investment.

So why hasn’t every country been adopting nuclear power? In short: fear.

The fact is that nuclear power is the safest form of energy that humans have ever used. If people are sceptical about radiation, in reality living near a nuclear power plant will expose someone to the same levels as travelling on a plane.

Researchers from Our World in Data find that nuclear energy results in 99.99% fewer deaths than coal, 99.97% fewer than oil and 97.6% fewer than gas. Mining accidents, natural gas explosions, oils spills and coal smoke all kill people.

But the only three accidents since the start of nuclear energy production have distorted its public image, leading to anti-nuclear campaigns and the shutdown of power plants in Germany, Spain and Sweden.

A study from the National Bureau of Economic Research estimates that the yearly cost of Germany’s nuclear phase-out is over €12 billion. A large part of this is the increased mortality risk from air pollution emitted by fossil fuels that replaced nuclear energy. This burden has been placed on society’s most vulnerable people, on doctors and on the taxpayers who fund these healthcare services – social costs that largely outweigh the minute risk of a nuclear accident.

Opponents of nuclear power may ask: what about the waste? Although still a political debate, this is no longer a technological issue, as Finland is set to open the world’s first permanent store for nuclear waste.

The technology correspondent of The Economist comments: ‘In the 60 years of nuclear power plants, there is enough waste to fill a football field’. That is tiny. In comparison, coal ash would be able to fill 50,000 football fields in just one year.

There’s change afoot in the energy industry. The UK is building its first nuclear power plant in decades. Germany is postponing its phase-out of nuclear plants to ensure energy security. Let’s not wait for another energy crisis to invest in nuclear. It may be that the solution to what could be the greatest challenge of this century is right under our noses.

Author: Jessie Bloom
Editor’s note: This article is from the University of Bristol’s communicating economics class of 2022-23.
Picture by acmanley on iStock
Related Articles
View all articles
Do you have a question surrounding any of these topics? Or are you an economist and have an answer?
Ask a Question
Submit Evidence