Nuclear power currently produces around 16% of the world’s energy needs and 20% of UK power by producing huge amounts of energy from small amounts of fuel. The latest research has shown that it is not just a short run solution as breeder reactors can extend the energy obtained per kg of uranium by a factor of about 100. It has also been shown that uranium can be extracted from seawater for a few billion years.
Few people now doubt its long term capability but for many the dangers of power station failure, nuclear contamination and the difficulties of ensuring the safety of used radioactive material outweigh any benefits of energy derived from nuclear power.
The debate over the future of such power is again urgent as the UK prepares to decide on its energy policy for the next decades with global warming and other environmental factors pushing themselves to the top of the list of considerations. I believe, in view of the likely long term political instability in the Middle East, it is also crucial for us to reduce our reliance on oil and other hydro-carbons from this region.
The nuclear option is scary and no one in government can be unmindful of that fact. Past disasters, especially Chernobyl, have shown us the inherent dangers. Today also there is the fear that one can believe that there are extremist forces in the world today who would consider destroying a nuclear site with its long term devastating consequences.
However after many years of damaging publicity it is clear that nuclear power is back on the political agenda. The Prime Minister has announced that he will consider re-starting a nuclear power station programme ‘if he can convince the public that it is safe and cost effective’.
The Council for Science and Technology, the UK government’s top-level advisory body on science and technology policy issues, whilst advocating renewable sources, said somewhat controversially recently that the nuclear option should not be ruled out. It cited a few of the many advantages to nuclear power. For starters nuclear-derived electricity is estimated to be less than half the cost of coal and wind power. Nuclear electricity has been reported to be cheaper than electricity produced by gas or oil-fired power stations as long as oil is more expensive than $28 a barrel. It is currently around the $70 mark with the talk of the town that it is likely to go much higher.
Nuclear energy produces “carbon neutral” power, meaning it does not contribute to global warming; nor does it spew out the sulphurous chemicals that cause acid rain. These two environmental problems are especially worrying in the fast industrialising parts of Asia. I spoke recently with leading Japanese diplomats who told me of the colossal damage being done to their country by acid rain from China.
The US is a great proponent of nuclear power and, at the recent G8 summit in Gleneagles, the US again pushed its “Generation IV” plans to “broaden the opportunities for the use of nuclear energy”.
But it is the environmentalists that are making nuclear power attractive again to governments who have had to eschew developing nuclear power because of public antipathy.
A major ally for the pro-nuclear lobby has come recently in the form of James Lovelock, someone who could be considered one of the “fathers” of the environment movement and author of the Gaia hypothesis. Lovelock recently declared that nuclear energy was the only practical answer to the challenges of global warming, but regarded it as a necessary medicine rather than a cure to the problem.
Despite mild political support the nuclear power industry has suffered over the past few years. In the 1990s nuclear power was the fastest-growing source of power in much of the world. Now, in 2005 it is the second slowest-growing. Opponents to the use of nuclear fuel often brandish three haunting reminders of the fallibility of nuclear power: Sellafield, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.
No new nuclear power stations have been built in either the US or Britain since these incidents. Of the UK’s fourteen ageing nuclear power stations, nine will have closed by 2012 and all but one will have shut by 2024. Meanwhile the share of nuclear-generated electricity is expected to drop to as low as 7% by that time. Interestingly, the last time the government had a parliamentary debate about the economics of nuclear energy in 2002, it concluded that nuclear power was going to be much more expensive in twenty years’ time than wind power, while solar and hydro-electric prices were coming down.
This trend is supported by a raft of evidence trumpeted loudly by environmental lobbies such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. In its general election campaign, the Green Party warned that while nuclear power stations produce energy for 30 to 40 years, they produce nuclear waste for thousands and thousands of years. If Britain is to meet the demanding targets it set itself in 2003 to cut its carbon emissions by 20% by 2010 then it cannot rely solely on nuclear power. Friends of the Earth research has determined that “doubling nuclear power in the UK would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by no more than 8%”.
So if we believe a recent poll by Newsnight which found that more than 50% of Britons are opposed to an expansion of nuclear power, we might ask, what are our other options? In short they are wind, water, solar, geothermal and biomass. The potential scope for such renewable sources of energy contributing hugely to the electricity supply is still open to debate with many commentators saying such sources are diffuse, intermittent and unreliable.
The central place for nuclear power as part of our nation’s future energy delivery is, in my view, well made. As a society now demanding ever more energy but insisting upon minimalising environmental damage, the current equation is clearly not adding up.
Clean renewable energy may be the most desirable but it is simply not possible today to feed any more than a fraction of this nation’s energy needs using such sources. Making existing energy production more efficient and reducing waste in the use of energy by consumers will have a significant economic and environmental impact. However, unless we radically reduce our energy consumption (an unlikely occurrence any time soon) this nation must look to increasing nuclear power to handle our growing demands.