Not one, not two, but three guest speakers from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) joined our tripartite meeting of SciSoc, VocSoc and the Environmental Society this week. Dr Ros Rivaz, Dr Chris Anwyl and Herr Volker Beckers joined Eton students in the Egerton Theatre to discuss nuclear power and its impact on today’s decarbonisation drive.

During the early 1990s, nuclear energy was at its peak in the UK, accounting for over 20% of electricity generation. However, events at Chernobyl in 1986 shifted public perception of nuclear power and the appetite for building these costly and cumbersome reactors waned. When compared with cheap oil and gas production, nuclear power was increasingly unpopular

At the turn of the millennium, however, the need for rapid decarbonisation was becoming apparent and nuclear energy re-appeared in discussions. The cost of construction and development of nuclear power plants is prohibitive for governments though, which is why the private sector have fueled Hinkley Point C, currently estimated to cost over £22 billion. It is estimated to open in 2026, 16 years after it was first announced.

Nuclear power plants can produce enormous amounts of electricity. When finished, Hinkley Point C will generate about 7% of our electricity needs. Although there are significant drawbacks to the technology, there are clearly benefits. Herr Beckers touched on the fact that cutting-edge technologies are on the horizon and an even better variation of nuclear power might not be too far off. Nuclear fusion produces much less radioactive waste and can achieve an even better energy efficiency than its sister technology- nuclear fission, which powers our current reactors.

You’re essentially putting the sun in a box, so what do you build the box out of?

Dr Chris Anwyl, Strategy Implementation Manager at the NDA

The race to build the first fusion reactor is ongoing and there are many challenges along the way. For example, Dr Anwyl said, ‘You’re essentially putting the sun in a box, so what do you build the box out of?’ The obstacles ahead will require a new generation of scientists, engineers, economists and policy makers to identify the risks, and embrace the positives of a technology that does have at least some place in our journey to net zero carbon emissions.