Clean Air Day: How nuclear energy helps reduce air pollution

With such a huge focus on carbon emissions and their link to global warming, it’s often forgotten that another major challenge for our society and environment is air quality. According to King’s College London and the Government’s Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants, up to 36,000 early deaths every year in the UK are caused by air pollution.

In the UK, among the types of polluting gases causing concern are sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and particulates. They have various causes, including from combustion of fuel in power generation, heating and transport.

According to Global Action Plan, the charity behind Clean Air Day, poor air quality causes heart and lung diseases, is linked to low birth weight and children’s lung development and may even contribute to mental health issues. Not only this, but a 2019 review by the Forum of International Respiratory Societies’ Environmental Committee says that pollution is likely to be damaging every organ in the body.

The natural world too is affected by poor air quality. One of the causes for the decline in the house sparrow is poor air quality, while air pollution damages trees’ ability to breathe, weakens them and leaves them susceptible to other illness and disease. It has long been known that most species of mosses and lichen cannot tolerate air pollution. There are widespread impacts on the building blocks of our natural world too; carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion is causing a dramatic acidification of our seas and oceans, which may cause a collapse in food chains.

So what does all this have to do with Bradwell B and nuclear power?

Improving air quality is one of the under-appreciated benefits of nuclear power. The UK’s nuclear fleet has generated safe, air-pollution free electricity for over 60 years.

Put simply, nuclear power stations do not burn hydrocarbons when generating electricity; they do not produce the cocktail of toxic chemicals that damage our health, the natural environment and the built environment.

Further, as we transition in the UK to a net zero carbon economy, in addition to decarbonising the electricity network, we will see transportation, heat and industry move away from burning hydrocarbons, which will see our electricity demand double by 2050. This places yet further emphasis on the need to develop new nuclear power stations to support renewables, and replace polluting hydrocarbon generation in a diverse energy mix.

Of course, as is the case for all infrastructure, there is a challenge for us to ensure we do not negatively impact on air quality in constructing Bradwell B. Whilst the peak of construction is only a short time period in comparison to the long-term environmental benefits of Bradwell B’s operational years, we must still work to minimise and where possible to eliminate the air pollution impacts. We will be addressing this as we develop the project, finding wherever possible sustainable ways to move people and materials, and in the use of plant on site.

Low Carbon Electricity

While we noted at the beginning of this article that the focus on carbon emissions can overshadow the importance of air quality, ultimately the two work hand in hand. At Bradwell B we are committed to delivering low carbon, secure, and pollution free electricity for at least 60 years.

By helping the UK achieve its target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, Bradwell B will play its part in continuing the nuclear industry’s positive role in keeping down harmful pollutants in the air.