Sustainability Assessment of Nuclear Power: An Integrated Approach


On December 8th 2011 the SPRIng Report was released by the SPRIng consortium, investigating the potential role of nuclear power in contributing towards a future sustainable energy system in the UK.Below you can read the Executive Summary of the report or download the entire report in pdf format.

Executive summary

SPRIng is a UK research consortium formed in 2006 and funded by EPSRC and ESRC. Led by the University of Manchester, SPRIng has worked in collaboration with City and Southampton Universities as well as with a number of partners from industry, government and NGOs. It brings together a unique range of expertise from different disciplines – energy technology, chemical engineering, environmental science, resource management, economics, safety, social and political science.

The main objective of SPRIng has been to consider the potential role of nuclear power in contributing towards a future sustainable energy system in the UK. For these purposes, SPRIng has developed a decision-support framework and a toolbox that can be used by decision-makers and other stakeholders to gain an understanding of sustainability issues related to nuclear and other electricity options and to make informed choices for a more sustainable energy system in the UK.

This report summarises some of the key findings of the project. Further information can be found in the SPRIng publications which are listed at the end of the report.

Key messages

  • Decisions on the future of nuclear power and other electricity options in the UK must take into account a range of sustainability criteria rather than be based solely on a market-led approach dominated purely by economics.
  • In very low energy consumption futures, the nuclear option is not essential. However, it could make a significant contribution to reducing UK greenhouse gas emissions by 2035. In futures with high energy consumption, the role of nuclear power becomes much more important for meeting climate change targets.
  • Decarbonising the UK electricity mix to meet climate change targets could worsen other sustainability aspects, including resource availability, ozone layer depletion, toxicity and health impacts from radiation.
  • Limiting the temperature rise to 2oC does not seem feasible unless a huge expansion of renewables (constituting 55% of the electricity mix by 2020) and nuclear (35% by 2035) became possible.
  • Uranium shortages will constrain within a few decades any significant global expansion of uranium nuclear plants unless major new uranium reserves can be identified and exploited.
  • Carbon taxation could play a significant role in promoting low-carbon electricity options, including nuclear. For example, a carbon price of £100 per tonne of carbon dioxide would be sufficient to trigger disinvestment from gas generators and would make nuclear plants of currently available designs highly profitable.
  • If no subsidies are given to low-carbon options, nuclear power could become competitive in 2015 compared to natural gas. By contrast, onshore and offshore wind power could become competitive with gas in 2032 and 2040, respectively.
  • Even when the radiological consequences of a large accident are taken into account, nuclear power remains one of the safest sources of electricity.
  • Nuclear power poses complex ethical questions regarding its intergenerational impacts. Future generations, who were neither responsible for the decisions to build nuclear reactors nor enjoyed the benefits of electricity, will nevertheless have to bear both risks and costs of nuclear decommissioning and waste management.
  • There is no ‘best’ electricity option overall but the choice of ‘sustainable’ options depends on stakeholder preferences and their value system.
  • Findings suggest that solar, hydro and wind are the most favourable electricity options for the UK public. The least favourable are oil, coal and gas power.
  • The majority of the UK public believe that the most important sustainability issues when choosing among different electricity options are water and land contamination followed by greenhouse gas emissions. Electricity cost appears to be least important, suggesting that the public believe that there is a greater difference between electricity options in terms of environmental pollution than their cost.
  • Delivering sustainable futures, especially in the realms of climate change, will require large numbers of coherent decisions. This may imply a need to micromanage outcomes. In a predominately market-led approach, policy-making is distributed among a very large number of effectively autonomous agents. It is not clear as to whether such an approach can create the coherence of decision-making needed to deliver on sustainability goals. However, markets tend to be more creative in producing a range of innovative solutions to complex problems than centrally planned systems.
  • Investment in low-carbon options, including nuclear, will depend among many other factors on investor confidence. Government should be clear on its energy policy to avoid undermining confidence in investment for fear of future major changes preventing appropriate returns on capital.
  • Individual preferences for economic, environmental, social and ethical aspects of electricity (or any other) options will influence decision options – this should be acknowledged and borne in mind in any future decision making.

Download the full SPRIng Report

  Download the full spring report now: here.


 University of Manchester  City University  University of Southampton