UK should ignore German pledge to shut down nuclear reactors

02 June 2011

The president of the Royal Society of Chemistry has warned the UK government not to follow Germany and shut down its entire nuclear industry. The UK has 19 reactors at nine locations producing an average of just less than 1.2 GW per location.

Professor David Phillips said if the UK was to replace its nuclear power stations with either offshore or onshore wind turbines, a huge number of turbines would have to be built. "One nuclear power station produces roughly 1.2GW compared with the roughly 3MW produced by one offshore turbine. Therefore 400 offshore wind turbines are needed to produce the same power but, as those turbines will not operate 100 per cent of the time, you would realistically need up to 1,200 offshore wind turbines to replicate the power generated at a single nuclear power station."

Due to the corrosive effects of sea water, it is far more likely onshore wind farm projects will be considered to save costs. As offshore wind turbines produce 50 per cent more power than onshore, hundreds more onshore turbines would be required to ensure energy demand is met.

"To replace current UK nuclear output of 10.5GW with onshore wind, at 2MW per turbine and a power per unit area of 2 W/m2, you would have to find an area the size of 750,000 football pitches," said Professor Phillips. "If the UK was to follow Germany and shut down its entire nuclear industry, we would presumably be looking solely at renewables to meet the shortfall. If you attempted to replace UK power stations with wind farms, for example, then an area the size of Oxfordshire and Derbyshire combined would be needed to locate them. The Royal Society of Chemistry believes there has to be a balance to meet our medium-term energy challenges."

Nuclear energy has been identified by the RSC in its roadmap for the chemical sciences, Chemistry for Tomorrow's World, as being a core component of the energy mix for the UK in order for the country to meet its commitments to reduce carbon emissions. The RSC believes nuclear energy generation is a critical medium-term solution. The technical challenge is for the safe and efficient harnessing of nuclear energy, exploring both fission and fusion technologies.

Further developments in wind power are also needed to minimise costs and maximise benefits. A 2MW wind turbine in the UK will generate more than 5.2 million units (kWh) of electricity each year - enough to make 170 million cups of tea, to run a computer for 1,620 years or to meet the electricity demands of more than 1,100 homes.

However, the contribution from wind is very small in comparison with our personal energy consumption, as highlighted by Professor David Mackay, from the University of Cambridge, in his book Sustainable Energy - Without the Hot Air. Professor Mackay has estimated that if the windiest 10 per cent of the UK was covered with windmills (delivering 2 W/m2), the UK would be able to generate 20 kWh per person per day - with the UK average energy consumption currently 125 kWh per person per day.

Notes for editors:

  • The power per unit area of 3 W/m2 is an appropriate figure for offshore wind farms around the UK, 50 per cent larger than the onshore estimate of 2 W/m2, according to Professor David MacKay from the Department of Physics at the University of Cambridge and chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change. The power per area of nuclear power facilities is 1,000 W/m2

  • 1 megawatt (MW) is equal to one million watts. 1 gigawatt (GW) is equal to one billion watts or 1,000 megawatts.

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