Nuclear needed to plug energy gap

Sizewell B, the UK's newest nuclear power stationThis week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has come out in favour of a new generation of nuclear power stations. While it is unfortunate if he has pre-empted the findings of the government’s energy review, on this occasion I believe Mr Blair has made the right choice.

In an ideal world, we would be able to use renewable energy sources to meet all of our needs. Unfortunately, the technology does not yet exist for renewables to account for the bulk of our electricity supply. The current nuclear power stations are reaching the end of their lives and we need something to replace them. A decision on nuclear needs to be taken now so that the new plants can come online to take over from the old ones.

By the time the next generation of nuclear power stations are being decommissioned, we will hopefully have developed renewables sufficiently to replace them. We may well also have new alternative sources such as fusion power. None of this is ready yet, so we need just one more cycle of nuclear power in the meantime. But going for nuclear now must not mean research into renewables is cut back. Preferably, much more money should be made available as a matter of urgency.

One alternative to plug the gap would be to use gas-fired power stations, which are cleaner than traditional coal-fired ones. Unfortunately, Britain’s own gas supplies are running out so that we are increasingly reliant on imports from abroad, most notably from Russia. Domestic gas prices are already rocketing, but of even more concern in the future would be security of supply.

Part of me is always surprised when “environmentalists” oppose nuclear power. The largest threat to the environment is global warming, and in this respect nuclear is particularly “clean”. Some of them have condemned it as 50-year-old technology – if they’re going to look at it that way, how old is the technology of burning gas? And for how long have there been windmills? Among the general public, the biggest problem is fear. The only time they hear about nuclear power is when there is an accident. They’ve all heard of Windscale/Sellafield, but they probably don’t realise just how many nuclear plants there are in the country – most of them they will never have heard of because they have all ended their working lives without incident.

That leaves the issue of nuclear waste. The fact is, we already have some of this to deal with, it isn’t going to go away. Maybe if we hadn’t had any nuclear power before it would be a different situation. As it is, a new generation of stations would only double the amount of waste at the very most (and newer stations are supposed to produce less) – it isn’t as if we are going to see a ten-fold increase. They say it will be a legacy that lasts for millennia; but within a century, I’m sure the technology will exist to render nuclear waste safe one way or another.

In the last few years, terrorism has been a big issue, and some people are worried that nuclear power stations could be targets. Many years ago, I can remember seeing a film of an aircraft being flown into a mock-up of a reactor’s concrete shielding. The aircraft was literally vaporised. While of course security should be tight around power stations, the most dangerous form of nuclear terrorism would be a “dirty bomb” exploded in the centre of one of our cities. And there are many countries in the world where it would be much easier for terrorists to obtain radioactive material than in the UK. Ultimately, I don’t believe we should ever be influenced by the prospect of terrorism, otherwise the terrorists have already won.

Opponents of nuclear power complain that Blair is listening to the “nuclear lobby” (and equally, those in the nuclear industry moan that he listens to the “wind power lobby” and suchlike). I have no affiliation with any industry, but in common with most physicists, I believe that we need to continue to utilise nuclear energy for the time being until the alternatives become more viable. I hope that as the lights of Tony Blair’s term as prime minister are about to be extinguished, his legacy will ensure the country’s remain lit for decades to come.

2 responses to “Nuclear needed to plug energy gap”

  1. GreenGOP

    There’s no question that nuclear energy must be a part of a total energy strategy. France gets 76% of its power from nuclear – one of the few things it does right. Like Blair, Bush is pushing for new nuclear plants – and has found allies in his former EPA chief and NJ Governor Christie Todd Whitman (a noted green republican) and the former head of Greenpeace.

  2. Joseph Siddall

    Totally agree, Nuclear has to form part of the energy solution. We just need to really work the waste issues. To be fair, if Petrol had just been invented I doubt we would be allowed to buy or store it. Such a potentially dangerous substance being handled by totally untrained people and stored in un-certified mobile in-use tanks controlled by half-trained idiots would have the legislators foaming at the mouth. All of life is risk; you just need to understand it and handle it sensibly.

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