The Hinkley nuclear reactor in Somerset has been criticised for both its financial and environmental impact. But, as someone that lives within an hour drive from Hinkley Point and who is neither pro- nor anti-nuclear, I have a divided opinion.

There are many environmental and economic issues with nuclear. At the same time it is a near zero carbon electricity source and provides a significant amount of electricity for the UK. This has lead me to wonder what the UK’s battle against climate change might look like without nuclear electricity.

Let’s take a look…

The most recent accounts from Decc tell us that nuclear provides 20% of the UKs electricity. This is behind gas at 27% and coal, which is the largest generator of UK electricity at 36%. Renewables have been growing at an incredible pace – between 2012 and 2013 this sector grew its electrical output by almost a third. This impressive growth was achieved in only a year and means that renewables now provide 14.8% of the UK’s electricity.

The current contribution from nuclear, at 20%, is significant. At present, and according to Defra, the carbon footprint of UK electricity is 0.62kg CO2e per kWh. This is already a worrying 42% higher than the average electricity in the EU. The 20% contribution from nuclear is near zero carbon. Without this power, the carbon footprint of UK’s electricity could go up significantly.

We need to consider that, without nuclear, the market could look to gas and coal to fill much of the 20% generation gap left behind. If this is the case, the carbon footprint of UK electricity could go up by 15-30% per kWh. This would make it amongst the dirtiest electricity in Europe, which would be a difficult political pill to swallow.

Nuclear remains a controversial choice, and for good reasons. Whilst opinion remains divided on nuclear electricity the recent EU approval of Hinkley Point shows that in our battle against climate change nothing is ever simple.

Dr Craig Jones is the founder of Circular Ecology and is a resource efficiency expert. A large part of Craig’s PhD was on life cycle assessment (LCA) of the UKs electricity network.

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