UK Dalton Institute releases practical paper on nuclear’s role in achieving net zero

17 June 2021

The Dalton Nuclear Institute at the UK’s University of Manchester on 15 July released a position paper: “Nuclear energy for net zero: a strategy for action”, which identifies the actions required to assess the role of nuclear in the UK's net-zero future. The paper’s authors include Francis Livens, director; Gregg Butler, head of strategic assessment; William Bodel, research associate in nuclear systems choice; and Juan Matthews, visiting professor in nuclear energy technology.

In the Foreword to the 41-paper paper, Livens says, given encouraging steps to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, the ageing of the current nuclear fleet and the need to decarbonise other sectors, “it makes sense that the government has announced that new nuclear could have a vital role to play in achieving net zero”. However, to achieve this potential, much needs to be done and many questions need answers. “We must also acknowledge that time is short. The nuclear sector has historically been unable to move quickly. To make a difference to the 2050 target, any new reactor technology must be developed, demonstrated, licensed and built by the 2040s. This means that technology development must begin now and that the more exotic technology options will not be feasible on the timescale required.” The report “seeks to address aspects of the national discussion on nuclear energy which are currently underdeveloped, and provides a series of recommendations which we believe will support the nuclear sector in achieving its best potential”.

The paper sets out to examine “the possible roles for nuclear energy in a ‘level playing field’ approach to net zero by 2050, making use of the various mechanisms on an overall best economics basis, with an objective, well-developed economic assessment system”. It says the potential roles for nuclear must be set out and assessed clearly, “recognising that they will not be adopted unless they are part of an optimum solution”. Similarly objective assessment mechanisms should also be applied to alternative decarbonisation options.

The roles of nuclear energy to provide firm power, district heating and high temperature heat are discussed. The various estimates which have been made of nuclear’s role in meeting net zero by 2050 are examined, “revealing a broad range of assumptions, which are mainly limited to the provision of firm power”. Few studies examine high temperature nuclear heat for hydrogen production or other uses in industrial processes. “The energy white paper envisages a demonstration of high temperature nuclear heat in the UK, and the review of this area concludes (in agreement with the recommendation from the Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory Board; NIRAB) that the high temperature gas-cooled reactor (HTGR) should be the key technology, with rapid assessment and development of hydrogen manufacturing techniques also required. Such a demonstrator could match a 2030 timescale, but is already on the critical path, so rapid progress is required.”

The paper makes eight recommendations:

  • The current state of advanced modular reactor (AMR) technology affirms that the demonstration reactor should feature HTGR technology, along with hydrogen generation using nuclear heat. A suitable body should urgently be set up to pursue this course, with valid parallels identified to the model currently being employed for progressing a fusion power demonstrator.
  • Developing and pursuing the path to a UK-based HTGR demonstrator should be given to a suitable body equipped and empowered to deliver the project, including directing all necessary. As the HTGR generally uses a once-through fuel cycle, uranium resources should be adequate for the rest of the century. However, in future, a closed cycle could transform the UK’s current depleted uranium and used fuel stocks into a valuable resource of energy for almost 1,000 years. The UK should keep open the option of developing a closed fuel cycle and should remain at the forefront of R&D in this area.
  • Closed fuel cycle R&D should continue to allow the UK to track developments to gauge when such systems may find a place in the UK energy market. The UK will need a viable system for assessing potential future systems.
  • An ongoing UK view of the developments in AMR systems should be maintained and led by a body unconflicted by claims and lobbying by any particular system proposer. The Generic Feasibility Assessment could host this task, but a suitably ‘interest-free’ peer reviewed organisation would be needed. Siting of reactors and fuel cycle plants will be important, given proposals to site SMRs close to population centres, high-temperature heat reactors adjacent to hydrogen manufacturing plants or other chemical users. International teaming will be needed if an HTGR demonstrator is to operate by 2030. The government would need to access informed and objective advice on the status of AMRs.
  • A suitable broadly-based advisory body should be engaged to offer advice to government, which could be NIRAB, or a successor.
  • The Climate Change Committee should explore, with suitable assistance, the possibilities of a wider role for nuclear in the net zero path. This requires non-partisan modelling of the economic path being plotted and the consequences of different approaches. Much of the modelling examined has been by the Energy Systems Catapult.
  • The Energy Systems Catapult should, with assistance from other modelling expertise, set up and run transparent level playing field models to monitor economic developments. For nuclear at least, there is a need for a better method to assess, or examine the assessments of the economics of various systems, given the many examples of proposed systems which produce ‘the right answer’ in terms of electricity or hydrogen cost, but offer little supporting evidence. This requires an open and peer-reviewed assessment of the benefits and disbenefits of any system, such as the radiation doses from nuclear energy; the carbon intensity of CCS or the resource needs of batteries or solar power.
  • A platform should be established for all energy sources present in the net zero path, to give a clear and unbiased view of the current status of net zero.

The report notes: “The great reason for optimism is that the government has embarked on a 30-year action plan, which will require a steady, long-term path, and this paper outlines the attributes of such a path for the contribution from nuclear energy. The action plan needs to be based on credible and verifiable assessments of all its component parts, and there is the need for openness to be achieved, while allowing a sensible role for commercial competition. Many of the current decarbonisation vectors, including nuclear in some quarters, sell themselves as ‘miracle cures’ of various sorts. A key need at the beginning of the action plan must therefore be to find a mechanism to achieve credible and verifiable assessments, without discouraging or discrediting successful innovation.”

Overall, the key message of this study is that it seeks implementation of nuclear energy where appropriate and advantageous, but examines ways to avoid being side-lined by unsupported hyperbole. “It is to be hoped that the ‘best for the UK, best for the planet’ message can be turned into reality.” 

The study affirms the conclusions of both NIRAB and the energy white paper that nuclear energy can, subject to proving its economics, have a significant role in enabling a pathway to the UK’s target of net zero by 2050. “This should include firm electricity generation by Gen III+ and SMRs, together with the evaluation of excess heat being used for district heating. The generation of hydrogen using high temperature nuclear heat is another potential role for nuclear fission, and herethe case for examining the construction of a UK-sited HTGR Demonstration Reactor is persuasive, together with the evaluation of also demonstrating the use of the high temperature heat to generate low-carbon hydrogen.” There is a need for the UK to team internationally.

The study concludes: “The review of the technological abilities both in the UK and overseas has indicated that a demonstration reactor could be online by 2030, but that this date is very much on the critical path.” This "will require a suitable organisation to be empowered to progress and integrate the whole task from R&D in both reactor technology and hydrogen generation and international teaming through to reactor siting and build”.

The entity should be overseen by a broadly-based advisory body engaged to offer advice to government on all aspects of the nuclear programme “against the background of an ongoing UK view of the developments in AMR systems led by a body unconflicted by the claims and lobbying from any particular system proposer”. A similar system should also be considered for all the energy sources present in the net zero path. “This system, with suitable peer review, should enable a less diverse range of views of the viable net zero paths by ensuring that only potentially viable systems are afforded support.”

Privacy Policy
We have updated our privacy policy. In the latest update it explains what cookies are and how we use them on our site. To learn more about cookies and their benefits, please view our privacy policy. Please be aware that parts of this site will not function correctly if you disable cookies. By continuing to use this site, you consent to our use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy unless you have disabled them.