Above: Hinkley Point C unit 1 under construction (Photo credit: EDF Energy)


THE DECARBONISATION CLOCK IS TICKING, as the UK and other countries aim for Net Zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and the importance of ‘green’ energy security is recognised both nationally and globally. Nuclear power (fission and, in future, fusion) is a key player in low carbon generation, as it produces no direct carbon dioxide emissions in its operational processes, and offers reliable, resilient, clean power. While nuclear generation is low carbon, the building, decommissioning and aftercare of nuclear sites is carbon intensive and, at present, the industry is not optimised for through-life decarbonisation. To really deliver on its green credentials, the industry must look beyond low carbon generation, and consider how it can reduce carbon throughout its life cycle.

The processes in mining, refining uranium ore and making reactor fuel use large amounts of energy – predominantly carbon-based – and building a nuclear power plant demands substantial quantities of metal and concrete. Not only do these construction materials require large amounts of energy in their manufacture and transport to site, they also represent a huge amount of embedded carbon: a 49,000kt concrete foundation (similar to that at Hinkley Point C in South West England) is estimated to be equivalent to 6457t of CO2e, (based on UK government conversion factors). Add to this the carbon produced during decommissioning and in waste aftercare and storage, and it is evident that there is a need for action, to build in decarbonisation throughout the nuclear life cycle.

The UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) nuclear innovation programme is expected to invest around £460 million in nuclear research and innovation between 2016 and 2021, and one of its targets is the decarbonisation of the foundation industry. On 18 November 2020, the Prime Minister published an ambitious ‘Ten Point Plan’ for a green industrial revolution. The plan includes £525 million to advance nuclear as a clean energy source, both large scale nuclear and developing the next generation of small and advanced reactors – potentially supporting 10,000 jobs. It is promising to see investment in nuclear innovation but, clearly, meeting the UK’s Net Zero target by 2050 requires work on decarbonising other intensive aspects of the nuclear industry.

Designing for sustainability

The current fleet of civil nuclear plants provide 40% of the UK’s domestically generated clean electricity. Moreover, the requirement for low carbon generation capacity over the next ten years is only likely to increase, with growing demand for low carbon transport and a reduced dependency on coal, oil and gas generation. The rapidly expanding clean electricity, green hydrogen and other alternative fuels markets, plus the upcoming closure of the UK’s current nuclear generation fleet, will make a significant programme of new build nuclear plant necessary to at least maintain nuclear’s proportion. The Nuclear Industry Association’s Forty by ’50: Nuclear Roadmap (June 2020) projects a substantial potential for large nuclear new builds, small modular peactors (SMR) and advanced modular reactors (AMR) between now and 2050.

These new nuclear sites will have to be designed so they are fully optimised for through-life decarbonisation. This will include decarbonisation in the supply chains: taking steps to power vehicles and infrastructure with green hydrogen, for example; or increasing the use of renewable energy sources in mining and refining. Symbiosis with other industries that could co-locate for efficiency (eg using waste heat) would contribute to optimisation. This is already being considered, for example a ‘clean energy hub’ at Moorside. Infrastructure design that is well-planned upfront, around or for the new plant could provide wider societal benefits, in addition to offering low carbon logistics, such as travel for staff who will operate the station.

There is an opportunity, with SMRs and AMRs that have a smaller physical footprint than current nuclear units, to re-use the brownfield sites currently housing fossil fuel power plants.


Above: Projections from the UK NIA see an increased role for small and advanced reactors, like the UK SMR


But it is not only new-build sites that should be taking steps towards decarbonisation. Existing nuclear sites should be modified to be as low carbon as possible for the remainder of their life cycle. This could involve switching vehicle fleets to use greener fuels, re-using infrastructure (eg, transmission and distribution networks) after site closure, harnessing waste heat as an energy resource or offsetting emissions.

The nuclear sector currently employs over 59 419 people directly, with a further 100 000 involved in the supply chain. It makes a gross value added (GVA) contribution to the economy in excess of £6 billion. If low carbon choices are implemented for the nuclear industry it could not only have a significant impact on emissions across the UK nuclear sector and internationally, but could potentially create sustainable jobs across a number of sectors.

A global goal

Sharing best practice and knowledge can support the global drive to decarbonisation and achieving the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The UN SDGs most relevant to the nuclear industry are:

  • Goal 7 – Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all (Note this also includes ‘managing our energy legacy’).
  • Goal 8 – Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.
  • Goal 9 – Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation.
  • Goal 13 – Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

The United Kingdom nuclear sector is collaborating on a number of bilateral and multilateral initiatives with other countries, such as the G7, G20 and the Clean Energy Ministerial.

For example, the UK and Canada are working together to transition to a more sustainable global economy through collaboration in low-carbon energy, technological innovation, and strong environmental protection.

In March 2020, BEIS and Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) signed the UK-Canada Nuclear Cooperation Action Plan.

In this bilateral framework governments and nuclear industry stakeholders work together to support advanced nuclear development and deployment, including joint activities on waste minimisation, fuel supply chain, advanced manufacturing, regulatory collaboration and financing SMRs.

As the countdown to the Net Zero deadline continues, policy from the Office of Nuclear Regulation is certain to be updated to align with these legally-binding targets.

By taking steps to identify and reduce lifetime carbon dioxide emissions now, the industry has a chance to get ahead of the curve.

It can de-risk many activities ahead of policy and regulatory changes.

Given that the cost of life cycle nuclear emissions can be offset, and that the UK government is offering grants (via the Clean Growth Fund and Innovate UK) for innovative projects that help towards achieving Net Zero and ‘building back better’ from COVID-19, the time is right for the industry to start taking action.

COP26, scheduled for November 2021 in Glasgow, will present an opportunity to highlight the importance of through-life decarbonisation in the nuclear industry at a great international forum, and to showcase the UK’s forward thinking in this sector.

Acting now will demonstrate the UK capability and help to secure investment, deliver sustainable jobs and increase export potential.

Author details: Rebecca Yates is Senior Environmental Engineer at Frazer-Nash Consultancy