Nuclear sector sustainability: designing to deliver through-life decarbonisation

10 December 2020

Frazer-Nash Consultancy’s Rebecca Yates considers how designing for sustainability could help the nuclear industry manage its through-life carbon emissions.

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 (both fission and fusion) is a key player on the low carbon generation stage, 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 global demand for nuclear is expected to increase significantly in the next few years. The processes for mining, refining uranium ore and making reactor fuel, for example, 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: for instance a 49,000 tonne[1] concrete foundation is estimated to be equivalent to 6457 tonnes of CO2e[2]. Add to this the carbon produced in nuclear power plants’ decommissioning, and in waste aftercare and storage, and it is evident that there is a need for action, to build in decarbonisation and sustainability 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 18th 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, across 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, now work needs to be put in to deliver the UK Net Zero target by 2050 and to decarbonise other intensive aspects of the nuclear industry.

Designing for sustainability

While the need to address the carbon embedded in, and emitted by, the wider nuclear production chain is clear, the power that nuclear generation delivers makes a substantial contribution to keeping the lights on in Britain. The current fleet of UK civil nuclear plants provide 40 per cent 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 the 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 this 40 per cent. The Nuclear Industry Association’s Forty by ’50: Nuclear Roadmap (June 2020) projects a substantial indicative capacity for large nuclear new builds, Small Modular Reactors (SMR) and Advanced Modular Reactors (AMR) between now and 2050.

These new nuclear sites will need to be designed so they are fully optimised for through-life decarbonisation – at all their life cycle stages. This will include ensuring decarbonisation within 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 processes. Symbiosis with other industries that could co-locate for efficiency (e.g. using waste heat) would contribute to optimisation, indeed, this is already being considered, for example with the Moorside Clean Energy Hub. Well-planned infrastructure design around, or for, the new plant (roads, rail etc.) could provide wider societal benefits, in addition to offering low carbon logistics, such as travel for staff who will operate the station through life as a part of the up-front design.

There is also an opportunity, with the development of SMRs and AMRs that have a smaller physical footprint, to re-use the brownfield sites currently housing fossil fuel power plants. 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. Again, this could involve switching vehicle fleets to use greener fuels, re-using infrastructure (e.g. transmission and distribution networks) after site closure, harnessing waste heat as an energy resource and/or offsetting.

The nuclear sector currently employs over 59,419 people directly, with a further 100,000 involved in the wider 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 only 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 as follows:

  • 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 UK nuclear sector is collaborating on a number of bilateral and multilateral initiatives, such as G7, G20, and the Clean Energy Ministerial, with other countries. 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. This bilateral framework enables collaboration between BEIS and NRCan, with both governments and nuclear industry stakeholders working 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 update to align with these legally-binding targets. By taking steps to identify, and reduce, through-life carbon dioxide emissions now, the industry has a chance to ‘get ahead of the curve’, and to de-risk many activities ahead of policy and regulatory changes. Given that life cycle nuclear emissions’ costs 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 ‘build 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 a key 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 capability in the sector. Acting now will demonstrate the leading capabilities the UK nuclear sector has, and help to secure investment, deliver sustainable jobs and increase export potential. 

About the author

Rebecca Yates is a Senior Environmental Engineer at Frazer-Nash Consultancy, and holds an MSc in Environmental Change, Impacts and Adaptations. With experience in the nuclear and defence sectors, she has a strong knowledge of environmental management systems, environmental permitting, environmental assessment and sustainability. She is an associate member of the Institute of Environmental Sciences. 


[1] This example is based on the Hinkley Point C nuclear reactor concrete base in Somerset, South West England.

[2] Based upon the Defra conversion factor (2020) for concrete of 1 tonne = 131.77 kg CO2e.

Rebecca Yates, Senior Environmental Engineer, Frazer-Nash Consultancy
Hinkley Point C unit 1 under construction (Photo: EDF Energy)
The UK’s Ten Point Plant, launched by Boris Johnson in November, includes funding to advance both large and small nuclear power plants
Projections from the UK NIA see increased role for small and advanced reactors, like the UK SMR

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