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Shutdown nuclear reactors lead to the return of coal power in the UK

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Wholesale power costs may have been quadrupling, but the revelation that Electricite de France (EDF) had been asked by the National Grid to fire up two old coal fired units at West Burton – one of just two remaining in Britain – sent shockwaves through those that had fondly imagined the black stuff was now history.  

This immediately prompted The Times to claim that the shortfall was due to low wind speeds, adding that wind power – which it said usually generates roughly 24% of the UK’s electricity – produced less than 2% during one particularly hot day. The Daily Telegraph then published a blistering editorial under the headline, “What happens when the wind doesn’t blow? We need to mitigate against the downsides of renewable energy.”

The editorial concluded that “there is some irony in the inadequacies of green power forcing a return of coal.” What none of the extensive coverage of this irony mentioned was that five of the UK’s remaining 14 nuclear reactors – also run by EDF – are now involuntarily offline. Indeed only 61% of nuclear’s much-trumpeted ‘reliable source of electricity’ has been constantly available, including the most modern, Sizewell B, itself hors de combat for much of the past year.

Because, as a study in the esteemed journal Nature Energy has revealed, the frequency of ‘climate induced disruption’ to nuclear power plants around the world has dramatically increased. Over the past 30 years, assessments indicate that the average frequency of climate-linked outages increased from “0.2 outages per reactor-year in the 1990s to 1.5 in the past decade”. Future projections under different climate change scenarios suggest that “the average annual energy loss of the global nuclear fleet is estimated to range between 0.8% and 1.4% in the mid-term (2046–2065) and 1.4% and 2.4% in the long term (2081–2100).”

Just remember this when you next hear the nuclear industry claiming that it alone offers secure power availability. It has never been true. And climate change looks set to worsen the outages even more.

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