Written by Tom Gill Published on 27 April 2023 ✔ Nuclear power produces almost no greenhouse gas emissions✔ It can take decades for nuclear plants to be operational✔ Nuclear fusion, which is cleaner than nuclear fission, is not yet feasibleReaching net zero is one of the UK’s biggest environmental challenges, and it’s essential that we do it sooner rather than later.Renewable energy is leading the way to this goal, but it’s been argued that relying solely on solar, wind, and hydropower won’t be enough.Enter nuclear power — a controversial means of generating electricity that has waxed and waned in popularity since the first nuclear power station was built in 1951.We’ve investigated why nuclear is essential to a net zero UK, also covering the pros and cons, how much nuclear power the UK currently has, challenges nuclear faces, and which other European countries are using nuclear power. What's on this page? 01 What does ‘net zero’ actually mean? 02 Why is nuclear power so important to net zero? 03 The key pros and cons of nuclear power 04 How much nuclear power does the UK already have? 05 Are there plans for more nuclear power stations in the future? 06 Challenges to nuclear energy in the UK 07 Are any other European countries using nuclear power? 08 Summary What does ‘net zero’ actually mean?Net zero doesn’t actually mean not producing any greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Instead, it’s a scenario where any emissions produced by the UK are balanced out by renewables, and other forms of energy.So in a net zero UK, we’d still be producing emissions from some fossil-fuel sources, but these would be entirely offset by carbon-free or low-carbon technologies, such as solar farms and wind turbines.We’d also be removing carbon emissions from the atmosphere, using techniques such as carbon capture, which can be done through many different methods.The UK has a Net Zero Strategy, and is legally required to lower its carbon emissions by 100% from 1990 levels by 2050. The UK government recently updated this strategy, after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report saying the previous net zero plan wasn’t robust enough.Additionally, after a legal challenge in June 2022 from climate activist group Friends of the Earth, the High Court ruled the now-replaced net-zero strategy as “unlawful” and “inadequate”. Why is nuclear power so important to net zero?When combined with a mix of solar power, wind power, and other renewable sources, nuclear power can play an important role in the UK reaching its net zero goal.Although it’s not considered a renewable source of energy, nuclear power plants produce almost no GHG emissions.Nuclear reactors generate power by using the process of nuclear fission — splitting atoms to release energy — to produce steam, which powers a turbine to create electricity. This steam is then released into the atmosphere, where it dissipates harmlessly.Nuclear fission is the type of nuclear power we’ve had since 1951, and it’s currently the only viable way of generating electricity using radioactive materials. The other method is nuclear fusion, where atoms are fused instead of split to release massive amounts of energy.This type of nuclear power is firmly in the experimental stage, and has only recently been proven to be possible. Researchers conducted a small-scale experiment that, for the first time ever, produced more energy than the amount that was used to ignite the fusion reaction.We’re still decades away from widespread nuclear fusion reactors. However, it was recently reported that an American fusion company, TAE Technologies, could have the world’s first commercial fusion reactor up and running in the UK by the 2030s.Unlike nuclear fission, the fusion method produces minimal nuclear waste — and the waste that is created has a much shorter half life. In nuclear terms, half life refers to the time it takes for the material to become half as radioactive.Fusion produces tritium, which is a short-lived isotope of hydrogen with a half life of 12.3 years. To compare, waste from existing nuclear fission power plants can contain materials that remain radioactive for millions of years. The key pros and cons of nuclear power Pros Low-carbon electricity Uses less space than most other forms of energy generation High power output Reliable power output Cons Radioactive materials are not renewable Huge upfront costs Nuclear waste Malfunctions can be devastating Advantages of nuclear powerProduces low-carbon electricityElectricity produced using fossil fuels releases massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is one of the primary causes of global warming. Nuclear power plants, on the other hand, produce almost no carbon emissions, or any air pollution whatsoever.The process of mining, refining, and preparing uranium does usually still involve carbon emissions, however. Plus, nuclear waste is its own separate environmental issue.Uses less space to generate the same powerA nuclear power plant takes up far less space than some renewable energy plants, such as solar and wind farms, to produce the same amount of electricity.For example, a typical nuclear facility producing 1,000 megawatts (MW) takes up about one square mile of space.To compare, a wind farm producing the same amount of energy would require 360 times this space – or roughly 431 turbines. Similarly, solar power farms generating the same energy would need 75 times more space than a nuclear power plant, equalling around 3.1 million solar panels.Generates a high power outputNuclear power produces huge levels of power compared to most other sources of energy – particularly renewables. This means they’re ideal providers of baseload electricity, which is the minimum energy level required by the grid to provide all the power we’d need in normal circumstances.Is a reliable power sourceA nuclear power plant produces its maximum power output more frequently than any other energy source, making it a highly stable choice for consistent electricity.True renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, aren’t as reliable. Solar farms generate less electricity in the winter for example, and wind farms output plummets when the wind isn’t blowing.2021 saw the UK’s second lowest average wind speeds for 50 years, meaning we had to import more energy. This wouldn’t be an issue with a stable nuclear power plant.Disadvantages of nuclear powerNeeds non-renewable radioactive materialsExisting nuclear reactors rely primarily on uranium ore for fuel, which is a finite resource found in the Earth’s crust.Expanding nuclear power means mining more uranium ore, depleting it further, driving up costs, and increasing the negative environmental impacts caused by extracting it.Mining uranium is hazardous for all sorts of reasons, including kicking up radioactive dust into the atmosphere, which can be carried by the winds. Heavy metals and arsenic can also leak into water supplies.Has huge upfront costsIt’s actually quite cheap to operate a nuclear power plant once it’s up and running, but building one costs a lot of money. This is because they’re enormously complex facilities that need tonnes of safety levels built around them, considering the devastating impact of a nuclear disaster. Chernobyl remains a lesson in why cutting corners, and costs, can have catastrophic effects.Produces nuclear wasteGenerating electricity using nuclear fission produces a lot of radioactive waste, which contains hazardous materials and can pose serious risks to human health and the surrounding environment. That’s why governments spend vast sums of money to safely store and dispose of spent nuclear fuel (nuclear fuel that has been used in a reactor).Nuclear fusion will avoid this issue, but we’re still decades away from it being a widespread source of energy.At risk of devastating malfunctionsA nuclear power plant is in a constant state of balancing the energies contained within it, and if these go out of balance, then a nuclear disaster can occur. This is incredibly unlikely with modern reactors, because of new safety mechanisms, but it’s still possible.History has already shown how bad nuclear disasters can be, and this is one of several reasons behind nuclear’s shaky reputation. How much nuclear power does the UK already have?There are currently nine operational nuclear power plants in the UK, producing a combined power output of 5.9 gigawatts (GW) of electricity. That was enough to produce 15.5% of all the UK’s electricity needs in 2022, but wind still eclipsed it with 26.8%.Nuclear’s share is set to fall further as well, with 50% of the UK’s nuclear capacity set to half by 2025. Are there plans for more nuclear power stations in the future?The ongoing project at Hinkley is the largest, and only, nuclear power plant being built in the UK – and it’s fair to say it is not going smoothly.Hinkley Point C is the first nuclear reactor to be built in the UK in over 20 years, and is replacing the decommissioned Point A and Point B nuclear power plants in Somerset. It’ll eventually provide roughly 7% of the UK’s electricity.Unfortunately, Hinkley Point C has continuously exceeded projected budgets, clocking in at an estimated £32.7 billion (up from £26.5 billion in May 2022). EDF, the company constructing the power plant, initially gave a cost estimate of £20.5 billion.What’s more, Hinkley has been delayed well beyond its original 2025 completion date too, with recent reports saying the plant might not be operational until 2036.The UK government has also launched its Great British Nuclear initiative (GBN), which is “a competition to select the best Small Modular Reactor (SMR) technologies”.SMRs are scaled-down nuclear reactors that can be built in factories and shipped for use elsewhere. But the problem is that this technology doesn’t yet exist. GBN is part of the government’s Net Zero Strategy, and has been widely criticised by environmental groups.Are these plans popular with the UK public?Both Hinkley Point C and GBN have not been popular with the UK public or the press, but for different reasons.Hinkley Point C has attracted condemnation because its construction represents a risky and expensive project for consumers. A good portion of the power plant’s costs have already been passed onto the public, as the government announced in 2021 that its budget will be part of the net zero drive.GBN’s main issue is that it’ll potentially take decades before it has any meaningful impact on the UK’s energy landscape, and the effects of climate change need to be addressed now.The Green Party attacked the initiative, saying: “There is nothing green about nuclear energy. It is monumentally expensive, cannot be built quickly enough to help tackle the climate crisis, and will leave a long and toxic legacy for generations to come.“The billions that will be poured into it would be far better invested in clean and renewable energy.”We also found in our 2023 National Home Energy Survey that nuclear power was only popular among the Silent Generation (born 1928–1945), who had a 35% approval rate. Once you got down to Gen Z (born 1997–2013), approval for nuclear power dropped to 7%.True renewable sources of energy, such as solar and wind power, had greater support overall. When asked what one energy source should the UK government be investing in, 24% and 31% suggested solar and wind respectively, versus 17% for nuclear power. Challenges to nuclear energy in the UKThere are many challenges to nuclear energy in the UK, including: Financial investment: Nuclear power plants have a high upfront cost, which makes them relatively unattractive to investors. They can also take many years to repay investments after they start generating electricityTime to build: Building a nuclear reactor takes a very long time, with an average construction period of 14 years. In comparison, a 50 MW wind farm can be up and running in less than six months.No unified waste solution: Getting rid of nuclear waste is a consistently thorny issue, and it’s presented challenges for the UK government. For example, the proposal to dispose of radioactive mud from nuclear power plants off the coast of Cardiff is currently generating a lot of controversy, and understandably so. Are any other European countries using nuclear power?Nuclear power plants are currently operating in Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Netherlands, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden.France, with 68% of its electricity coming from nuclear power, has the highest nuclear generation share of any country in the world. It doesn’t have the highest amount of electricity generated by nuclear power though – that accolade belongs to the US, which generates 95 GW, compared to France’s 61 GW. SummaryIt’s clear that nuclear power will continue to play a significant part of the UK’s move away from fossil fuels, despite opposition and the fact it takes such a long time to get reactors operating.We’re still a long way from nuclear fusion too. But when it does become widespread, it should provide clean electricity in much larger quantities than wind and solar — all while taking up far less space.This is likely why environmental activists see more investment in genuinely renewable energy as the better solution. And it’s hard to disagree, when you look at how much solar and wind have contributed to the UK’s electricity consumption over the last few years. Written by: Tom Gill Writer Tom joined The Eco Experts over a year ago and has since covered the carbon footprint of the Roman Empire, profiled the world’s largest solar farms, and investigated what a 100% renewable UK would look like. Tom has a particular interest in the global energy market and how it works, including the ongoing semiconductor shortage, the future of hydrogen, and Cornwall's growing lithium industry.