Could heat-only nuclear help us decarbonise British cities?

Nuclear power in what is now Cumbria, 1955. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

As a country, the UK will not meet future climate change targets unless we figure out how to heat and cool our cities without burning vast amounts of natural gas. Towns and rural areas also need to decarbonise their heat supply, of course. But cities being what they are, the greatest amount of energy going into keeping people and equipment at reasonable temperatures are in cities.

Renewable heat only supplying around 5 per cent on annual heat demand in the UK, and isn’t increasing anywhere near as much as needed. The UK government has introduced a world-leading Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), which paid out cold hard cash to households and businesses to produce heat from renewable sources, with 90 per cent of installation being biomass. But the RHI at a household level has not been nearly as successful as comparative schemes for solar PV, likely due to a higher hassle factor, despite being potentially more financially lucrative.

Highly concentrated heat demand allows heat networks in cities to be economically viable, compared to towns or suburbs. Heat networks are essentially pipes of hot water, much like gas pipes. In cities, these networks can transport heat to where it is needed from large heat productions plants, or from processes which make waste heat in a city, like subways, sewers, or digital heavy infrastructure.

Many UK cities already have heat networks in place – but they are almost all based around burning gas. This is acceptable now, as combining heat and power production lowers national carbon emissions, but it comes at the cost of a huge point source of air pollution in a populated area. Although a properly designed flue should result in minimal emissions actually reaching people, it’s clearly a problem for the long term. And don’t feel this doesn’t affect you if you are running a biomass boiler or even a pretty wood burning stove in a populated area, air pollution restrictions might be coming your way.

There is good news as British cities are starting to move away from just burning stuff for heat and towards long term low carbon solutions – ones which don’t have impacts for air quality. Technologies like water source heat pumps can extract the low grade heat from our rivers or the sea, and boost it to useable temperatures. Rivers effectively act like massive solar collectors, gathering heat from their catchments and bringing into cities where it is needed (cheers, nature).

British cities with a legacy of mining are also starting to seriously look at their mining legacy as an asset to support heat extraction and storage in a dense urban environment. This strategy has been hugely successful in the Dutch city of Heerlen. But heat pumps still need power from the grid to work, and since they will be mostly used in winter the end result on the power grid is likely to be our gas or coal plants turned up slightly.


However there’s one solution which we’re not talking about, which perhaps we should be. It’s very low carbon, creates no air pollution, produces heat easily at higher temperatures, and doesn’t put extra demand upon the power network.

That solution is nuclear – but not as you might know it. There are some grasping projections of how we could build small modular nuclear power reactors, place these near high heat demands (cities or industry) and reap almost continuous large volumes of high grade heat. But our electricity grid is rapidly decarbonising – so what if we did away with the electricity generation of nuclear and just sought the heat generated?

Producing only heat would significantly decrease the cost of each plant, as the nuclear fuel rods wouldn’t have to bother heating steam to hundreds of degrees celsius to drive turbines. For direct heat we would need relatively low temperatures (around 90°C maximum), simple heat exchangers are all that is required to ensure total isolation between the nuclear fuel and the heat under the streets and in our homes. This would result in claims of comparative costs per unit of heat delivered as gas.

Of course, an important component of plausible energy scenarios for the UK is social and political acceptability. There’s no point designing what will just be rejected by the public and elected representatives – and having a nuclear reactor in the centre of British cities, well, that might be a problem. Fortunately, there are many routes to decarbonising heat in the UK, which don’t rely on using nuclear heat

Meanwhile, China is currently undergoing a huge shift away from coal for heating, mainly driven by dire need to improve air pollution. Some homes may have even been left without heat during winter due to such effort to rapidly move away from coal.

China’s district heating networks consumed more energy in 2015 than the whole of the UK, and the majority are based around coal. Heat-only nuclear reactors have been trialled and operated in China. Wider roll out could occur from 2020.

So could your heat be provided by a heat only nuclear plant? If you’re visiting northern Chinese cities in the futures, then maybe.

 
 
 
 

After a decade of austerity, councils need a new way to fund culture

The Millennium Centre for the performing arts, Cardiff. Image: Getty.

The Labour leader of Cardiff council explains why he helped launch the Cultural Cities Enquiry.

Within living memory, the landscapes of Britain’s core cities have been transformed. Once smog-filled bastions of heavy industry, they have faced down the spectre of managed decline, and emerged as vibrant hubs, dominated by the knowledge economy and services. While each city responded differently to the challenges of deindustrialisation, the role of culture in regeneration has been a consistent theme.

Glasgow’s European City of Culture programme in 1990 was a turning point for that city, as it was for Liverpool in 2008. In Cardiff, sports and culture were brilliantly and inventively used to transform the city – culminating in our hosting of the UEFA Champions League Final and being named the UK’s first Music City. Across our cities, a buzzing cultural scene has become a major part of what makes our cities such great places to live, particularly for the young, creative people who are so vital in the 21st century economy.

As a result of this transformation, modern Britain is a global creative powerhouse. Go to any country in the world and you will meet people who listen to music, play video games, read books, watch films and plays created in our cities. The creative economy is one of our most important export industries, accounting for almost 10 per cent of the UK’s GVA and around 2.5m jobs.

Building creativity into our education system, as we are doing in Cardiff, creates children who are able to think differently to adapt and to invent, who will be able to respond best to challenges like automation that are already disrupting the jobs market. 

But the benefits of culture are not restricted to the balance sheet. Culture is about people and the places they live. It brings us together. It creates shared experiences and strengthens bonds between people and communities, so important when there are some – a tiny, tiny minority – who are trying to do the opposite, by creating division and spreading hate. 


Culture and the arts can make a massive positive difference across all aspects of city-life, culture – but this is now under threat. A decade of austerity has left the financial model which underpins culture in British cities creaking at the seams.

It will soon be in crisis. New solutions and radical changes are needed, recognising the simple truth that the traditional approach to funding and supporting culture in the Core Cities is broken.  

Organisations like the one I lead are contending with spiraling demand and shrinking resources. Public sector investment has long been the backbone of UK cultural provision, but after a decade of austerity we cannot fund it the way we used to.

The challenge is compounded as technology changes the way culture is consumed, and the persistent blight of inequality leaves a significant proportion of our most disadvantaged communities with limited access to the arts.

That is why the time is right for the Cultural Cities Enquiry. The enquiry will bring together cities, UK arts councils, and leaders from a range of sectors to consider how we can ensure our cities remain world-leaders for culture and creativity. 

Our aim is to create a set of practical recommendations that will enable city leaders and cultural institutions to make the best use of available resources and set up new channels of investment.

Successive governments haven’t yet provided the tools to realise the economic potential of cities and they haven’t fully unlocked their cultural potential either.

Given the right policy levers, cities can add to the UK’s formidable reputation as a creative powerhouse. We know that greater local flexibilities are key to success – yet UK cities currently control only 5-7 per cent of their tax base. This is five times less than the OECD average and ten times less than US cities.

The Basque city of Bilbao, for example, secured the Guggenheim Museum because its city government had freedoms on local spending and tax retention that UK cities can only dream of.

In New York the development of leading cultural institutions – Including the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum – were carried out through a local trust. This allowed for culture bonds, triple tax-exempt debt and borrowing to fund growth.

Our cities are already experimenting with new approaches. Newcastle recently helped Live Theatre build a new headquarters by offering a loan at preferential rates; Bristol struck a new deal with funding agencies; while Nottingham and Sheffield both invested in creative industries quarters, stimulating the local economy. But, given the scale of the funding challenge, we are a long way from where we need to be.   

This enquiry, that will report its findings this autumn, is the vital first step on a journey towards a new and sustainable way of funding culture in our major cities – where creativity can flourish, and where the transforming power of the arts can be enjoyed by all our citizens.

Cllr Huw Thomas is leader of Cardiff council. To find out more about and submit evidence to the Cultural Cities Enquiry, click here.