Unveiling the 2006 Energy Review last July, outgoing Prime Minister, Tony Blair, declared that nuclear power was ‘back on the agenda with a vengeance.’ It was a statement that seemed a far cry from his government’s sentiments of three years earlier when nuclear was gloomily branded ‘an unattractive option.’
Blair’s endorsement appeared to be greeted by the public either with horror or reluctant acceptance. In trying to cajole people into reassessing the potential of nuclear power, supportive politicians and commentators chose not to challenge myths surrounding the technology but rather to promote it defensively as a last resort.
I believe, however, it is time for Britain to positively embrace nuclear power. We now face two significant challenges – energy security and climate change – and it is essential that we develop a robust and coherent energy strategy to deal with them. Of course energy conservation and renewable technologies can help, but it is time to accept that alone these elements are not enough.
Nuclear power is able to provide us with large amounts of clean energy using cheap, plentiful fuel in a secure and reliable way, but its potential has long been masked by emotive environmental arguments and the politics of fear. Nuclear now needs to be seen as not merely a last resort but a positive solution. If the public is to accept and support a new generation of nuclear power stations, it is vital that those with influence set out the economic, environmental and political case for a full scale nuclear revival.
Atoms for Peace
The British government has long avoided the nuclear energy issue, deeming it politically tricky, something that voters would simply not accept. But why has the British public come to view the nuclear industry not only with a sense of distrust but with outright fear?
Before and during the Second World War, nuclear research focussed on ways to create supreme weapons. As the war drew to a close, however, a number of governments began to encourage the development of nuclear science for peaceful purposes.
Britain was amongst the pioneers of civilian nuclear use and the world’s first commercial nuclear reactor was built here in 1956. Nuclear power began to be embraced with some enthusiasm in a number of industrialised nations as a source of potentially cheap, safe and clean energy. In the United States the new industry began to grow rapidly and the technology was globally welcomed with the establishment of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
By the early 1970s, however, the tide was beginning to turn on nuclear and more than two thirds of nuclear power plants commissioned after January 1970 were eventually cancelled. With the price of fossil fuels decreasing and with greater regulation and pressure from interest groups extending the construction time of new power stations, the appetite for nuclear had begun to dwindle. Yet paradoxically, it was the sharp rise in fossil fuels following the oil crisis of 1973 that truly stifled nuclear power’s expansion. Projected energy demand fell sharply and it became increasingly difficult to fund capital-intensive schemes.
If nuclear power had the chance of a renaissance once fuel prices had stabilised, that chance was baulked by a number of high profile accidents which destroyed public confidence in the science. In 1979, an incident at the Three Mile Island plant in the United States caused the nuclear reactor’s fuel core to become uncovered. Whilst no deaths or injuries resulted, the impact on public opinion was disastrous. The later Chernobyl catastophe in the Soviet Union, however, and concerns in the UK in the early 1990s about the effect of local power plants on unborn children, further damaged public confidence and led to a major decline in nuclear power plant construction in the 1980s and 1990s.
Besides these elements, the image of civilian nuclear power has been tarnished by the technology’s links with nuclear arms. A science in part born out of the need for more sophisticated weaponry, many have continued to associate nuclear energy with the idea of destruction. This perception, of course, has been strengthened by the number of crackpot dictators and volatile regimes which have used civilian nuclear programmes as the disguise of choice for darker ambitions.
These factors have rooted deep in the collective psyche a perception of civilian nuclear power as an unknown quantity, a potentially unstoppable, uncontrollable force with weird and frightening qualities. One only need look at the way in which nuclear power has been depicted in popular culture to understand how mythical ideas of the science have embedded themselves. Take cartoon show, The Simpsons, for example, where a number of freakishly-evolved creatures, such as Blinky the three-eyed fish, wallow in the radioactive surrounds of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant.
This widely-accepted view of nuclear power has led to an inflation of the risks involved with the technology, and a playing to this fear by environmental groups has created a setting hostile to rational argument and logical thinking, pushing this science – and its fantastic potential – out of the public arena.
A Last Resort
Two major energy challenges face Britain in the twenty first century – energy security and climate change ? and it is these key factors which encouraged the government to rethink its 2003 Energy Review just three years later.
It is predicted that by 2020, Britain will be importing ninety percent of its gas needs in comparison with around ten percent now. North Sea oil production is expected to fall to one third of its peak in that time, and in becoming dependent on foreign fossil fuels, the country could be left vulnerable to both fluctuations in the price of oil and the political motives of the countries we buy that fuel from. Needless to say, the Middle East (where much of our oil originates) is likely to remain a hotbed of political instability in the decades to come. Demand and competition for resources is likely to increase significantly with Chinese and Indian energy consumption looking set to double by 2030, pushing up prices of dwindling resources. Energy supply could also be used more frequently as a political bargaining chip, as shown by Russia holding the Ukraine (and by extension Western Europe) to ransom by cutting off its gas supply for a few days in 2006.
It is still debated whether or not the recent heating of the planet is temporary or permanent, a natural fluctuation or caused by mankind. Nevertheless, these arguments are somewhat irrelevant when it comes to the UK’s energy policy. What matters is that the government has committed us to cutting carbon emissions to reach both Kyoto and self-imposed targets. The unfortunate truth is that Britain is becoming an increasingly insignificant polluter as China and India push forth as major global forces. China, for example, embarked last year on a schedule to build 562 coal fired power stations by 2012 (the equivalent of a new station every five days for the next seven years.) It is therefore vital that if we are to pursue our carbon targets, we do so without sacrificing the health of our economy. After all, if our economic competitiveness declines as a result of carbon cutting measures, we risk business moving to Asia and the overall amount of carbon pumped into the atmosphere globally will not have changed.
When Blair announced last year that he believed nuclear energy would play a key part in resolving these twin troubles, public reaction was either of outrage or gloomy resignation. In depressingly predictable fashion, Mayor Ken Livingstone responded in hyperbolic indignation that Blair’s endorsement was ‘a colossal mistake’. The Green Party spoke of the government leading the country down a ‘dirty and dangerous path.’ Liberal Democrats labelled nuclear ‘the ultimate stealth tax’ and the Conservatives designated nuclear ‘a last resort’.
Within this negative framework, it was no wonder that public perception of nuclear power as a dangerous force was left unchallenged. The absence of sensible, detached and logical debate served only to indulge a public blackly captivated by disaster scenarios and enraptured by the green lobby’s castigations.
I am a natural optimist and have never sought to utilise the politics of fear. I believe in the power of science and the market not tax and dictates, to remedy the challenges which face us, and I am confident that nuclear power provides us with a positive solution to our future energy needs.
Neutralising the negatives and presenting the positives
In my opinion, nuclear power addresses the challenges of both climate change and energy security as a controllable, large-scale, long term and low carbon option.
One of the traditional arguments against nuclear energy has been the high initial capital costs and the relatively long time needed for construction before revenue is returned. However, as fuel prices begin to rise, competition for resources increases and the emission of carbon starts to come at a financial cost, nuclear becomes economically realistic.
Uranium remains a low cost fuel source and a 2004 Royal Academy of Engineering study found that nuclear is actually half the cost of wind power due to the unreliability of renewables.
Reliability and Capacity
Due to the difficulty of storing large amounts of electricity, a conventional generating capacity needs to be maintained when relying on renewable energy technologies for times when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine. Studies conducted by the World Nuclear Association suggest that renewables will therefore only ever be able to make up twenty percent of the capacity of an electricity grid, making them both expensive and unreliable.
Nuclear power can provide energy consistently. The uranium required to fuel nuclear plants is a relatively common metal found in rocks and seawater, and large deposits exist in politically reliable countries such as Australia and Canada. Furthermore, spent fuel can be reprocessed and recycled, extending fuel availability by forty percent. This suggests that nuclear power can meet sustained future energy demand.
Although volumes of nuclear waste are small in comparison to waste from traditional forms of electricity generation, spent fuel still needs to be managed safely. Scientific experts generally agree, however, that geological disposal of waste can be carried out securely.
Around one third of the cost of a nuclear reactor is spent on safety systems, and there is probably no other large-scale technology with a comparable safety record. Nuclear power stations are amongst the strongest structures ever built, and all reactors built to Western standards would prevent a release of radioactivity even in the worst case scenario. Tests have been conducted which conclude that nuclear fuel would be protected even in the event of a large commercial aeroplane crashing into the reactor.
Many people are understandably fearful of another accident on the scale of Chernobyl, but it should be pointed out that the Chernobyl reactor had a flawed design and would never have passed safety tests in Britain. Despite this, the United Nations concluded that there was no evidence of any increase in cancer incidence at locations near to Chernobyl over twenty years.
Like renewable sources of energy, nuclear power generates electricity without emitting carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. Unlike renewables, however, nuclear has the ability to produce large supplies of clean electricity for a long time on a global scale. Furthermore, nuclear is the only electricity-producing industry which takes full responsibility for the cost and storage of its waste.
Despite ostensible public support for renewables, in practise there is often opposition to the visual impact of wind turbines and solar panels. I have also been contacted by constituents who highlight the problems caused by the growth of biofuels for energy. In many cases, rainforests and other valuable ecosystems are destroyed to make way for large scale crop production for fuel.
The clean energy produced by nuclear power plants also has the potential to desalinate water on a large scale, possibly helping many of the world’s people who experience shortages to access fresh water.
The Need for a Nuclear Future
Nuclear power has the potential to provide us with large and consistent amounts of clean energy using cheap, easily-sourced, plentiful fuel in a safe and secure way. Unfortunately this potential has too long been shrouded by emotive arguments which play on the public’s fear of human and environmental disaster.
I believe it is right and necessary to have a mixed energy supply which includes renewables, and to encourage greater energy efficiency. But it is vital that we realise the limits of renewable technology. Unless the UK wishes to involve itself further in a foreign scramble for decreasing and expensive resources, the nuclear option will have to be considered.
I propose that we now positively embrace nuclear technology, following the example of France, a country which has the cleanest air of any industrialised country, the cheapest electricity in Europe, and which obtains some eighty percent of its energy from nuclear power.
Nuclear makes economic, political and environmental sense. Politicians now need to be brave enough to go against the grain of public opinion, cease from dithering over decisions and promote nuclear power for a secure future.