Renewable energy technologies are cheaper than nuclear plants, safer than nuclear plants, and now they generate more energy than nuclear plants too.
“For the first time ever in Europe, renewables produced more power than nuclear – and solar power was key in achieving this remarkable achievement,” according to Michael Schmela of SolarPower Europe.
Countries around the world installed solar panels at record-breaking pace in 2014 to bring total capacity to 100 times the level it was at the start of the millennium. Britain was at the helm in Europe, and is on track to retain first place this year too.
This milestone shows us that Britain can power itself with largely through renewable energy, without taking a nuclear gamble.
Why should we choose solar panels over nuclear power plants?
Nuclear plants are, in comparison to coal, low-carbon. But there remain a number of compelling reasons why policymakers prefer solar panels and wind turbines to nuclear power plants.
First are the health concerns. Nuclear plants cause radiation that can be dangerous to those that live and work nearby. Numerous researchers have uncovered an elevated risk of cancer in those that live near nuclear plants, such as the Bradwell nuclear power station. Worse still, there is always the risk of a nuclear meltdown such as the one that happened in Fukushima. The Health Protection Agency (HPA) is at pains to point out that “there is no safe level of radiation.”
Another problem is the production of nuclear waste, which takes tens of thousands of years to decay. By 2020, we’ll have 140 tonnes of plutonium – what the BBC describes as the “biggest non-military stockpile in the world.” This necessitates investing in tough security measures to prevent deadly nuclear materials from falling into the wrong hands.
The most radioactive waste produces enough heat to corrode all containers, and would kill anyone exposed to it for more than a couple of days. Some waste can be reprocessed, but the only long term solution we currently have is burying it under the ground. It’s for this reason that few people consider nuclear to be a sustainable option.
Nuclear plants are also much more expensive than renewable technology…
Perhaps most importantly from the government’s perspective, nuclear has turned out to be a very expensive method of producing energy.
The company that is building Hinkley C, the UK’s latest nuclear plant, is treading water after running into immense financial difficulties building plants in Finland and France. Unfortunately the building underway in England is based on the same model that has so far been a complete failure on the continent. Critics say that Hinkley C the most expensive object ever built, and of course it is the British taxpayer that has footed the bill once again.
This doesn’t even cover the cost of decommissioning a plant once its lifespan is up, which can be just as expensive as construction. The cost of decommissioning Sellafield nuclear plant has completely spiralled out of control.
What’s next for solar energy?
While the latest nuclear plants are getting more and more expensive, the cost of solar panels is going in the other direction.
“New wind and solar power systems can generate electricity up to 50% cheaper than new nuclear power plants,” according to Patrick Graichen of Agora Energiewende.
A study conducted by Prognos AG concludes that a system of renewable energy technologies supported by natural-gas power plants to overcome intermittency would be 20% cheaper than constructing more nuclear power plants.
Overtaking nuclear is an impressive milestone for renewable energy – one that would have been unimaginable five years ago. Overtaking coal is the vital next step.