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A solution to the power struggle

The United Arab Emirates and Scotland have much in common. Both are small nations whose economies have been geared to the production and export of oil and both are rich in future renewable energy potential.

 The empty deserts of the UAE have the capacity to produce vast quantities of clean solar energy, while the coastal waters of Scotland could generate copious wind, wave and tidal energy.

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However, while the UAE has just awarded a contract for four nuclear power plants, in Scotland we are in the process of winding down our nuclear capacity.

Modern nuclear plants are compact machines with a design life of 60 years and provide continuous output of firm base-load power. The UAE has, therefore, chosen a prudent policy that will guarantee a supply of clean energy into the far future.

This is not to argue against the development of renewable energy. Too often a false choice of nuclear or renewables is offered. In reality, the key issue is to deploy an optimum mix of technologies to minimise cost and environmental impact while displacing carbon. In choosing this mix, we should recognise that since the industrial revolution energy density has increased while carbon intensity has decreased at each transition from wood to coal, oil, gas and nuclear. These long-term transitions were not the result of bureaucratic targets, but technical innovations.

Having an apparently unlimited resource of wind, wave and tidal energy does not mean it can be easily exploited, or that energy can be produced when it is needed. Due to their diffuse and intermittent nature, renewables require large-scale collection and transmission systems, along with guaranteed back-up. For comparison, the equivalent of the entire onshore wind resource of Scotland could be delivered by two new base-load nuclear plants on existing grid connected sites at Hunterston and Torness. Indeed, if the electrification of transport becomes a reality in the decades ahead, there will be an even stronger case for the growth of base-load power for overnight vehicle charging.

It is often stated that Scotland’s renewable energy potential is an opportunity on the scale of North Sea oil. Certainly, similar levels of capital expenditure will be required for renewables as was sunk into oil in the past. However, oil made money whereas renewables need money to make them viable. It is clear that nuclear is a cost-effective way to generate plentiful, reliable electrical energy while displacing carbon from energy production. Investment in renewable energy research is required to reduce costs but decisions on the future of ageing coal and nuclear plants need to be made soon. Proven nuclear technology can allow emerging renewable technologies to be developed.

Perhaps the most contentious issue with nuclear energy is unspent nuclear fuel. Modern reactors will add little to existing stockpiles. In addition, the fleet of third generation reactors now being deployed is a stepping stone to fourth generation reactors which are more efficient and consume this unspent fuel to generate more clean energy. Nuclear energy is one of the key energy technologies of tomorrow, with future plants delivering base-load electricity, process heat and hydrogen for green industries. We have only scratched the surface of what is possible with nuclear.

If we choose an energy policy that promises a vision of a greener Scotland powered primarily by renewables, but ultimately delivers expensive energy for consumers, industry or export, Scotland will be at a competitive disadvantage. If we accept nuclear can be a cost-effective way to generate clean energy, we can have a balanced policy that supports the long-term development of renewables while ensuring and growing future energy supply.

Our present policy is betting on renew­ables at any cost, economic or environmental, simply to eradicate nuclear. We need to widen the debate on our energy future.

 

Colin McInnes is Professor of Engineering Science and Ken Ledingham is William Penny Professor of Laser Nuclear Physics, both at Strathclyde University.

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