Nuclear power has justifiably had a bad press in recent years. It's expensive to the point of being uneconomic without massive government subsidies, produces dangerous radioactive wastes, and the consequences of a serious accident or terrorist attack on a nuclear plant could be devastating.
Recently the nuclear industry has seized on concerns over climate change and high oil prices to get nuclear power back on to the British political agenda. Tony Blair is being urged to allow construction of 10 new nuclear power stations. This would provide a lifeline for the beleaguered nuclear industry, which is arguing that new reactors would help the government as it struggles to keep its promise to reduce emissions of CO2 (the greenhouse gas primarily responsible for climate change) by 20% by 2010. The industry claims this is an obvious 'solution', because nuclear reactors emit virtually no CO2 at the point of electricity generation.
Delve a little deeper though, and the logic of this pro-nuclear argument begins to unravel. While it's true that most nuclear reactors do not emit carbon (although British nuclear plants actually do release CO2 gas because it is used for cooling), they are a small part of a nuclear fuel chain which most certainly does. The preparation of uranium for the reactor involves a host of CO2 -emitting processes, including: mining and milling the ore; fuel enrichment and fuel-rod fabrication. Then there's the construction of the power station itself. At the other end there's reactor decommissioning and the treatment, storage, transport and disposal of nuclear waste. All of this involves CO2 emissions, which in some areas - such as fuel enrichment - are significant.
Once this whole life-cycle is taken into consideration, the claim that nuclear power is a 'carbon-free' alternative to current fossil-fuelled power stations doesn't stand up. The most recent studies indicate that, for the richest uranium ores, CO2 emissions across the nuclear cycle are about 33% that of fossil-fuel plants. So far so good - but the fact is that very little uranium ore is of sufficient quality to produce such a result. Poor grades of ore have a content of less than 0.02% uranium-235 (this is the uranium isotope which is necessary to sustain the chain reaction in fuel in a nuclear power plant). As the high grade ores are used up, the industry will become increasingly dependent on lower grade ores - which will mean using more and more energy to 'enrich' the level of uranium-235 in the fuel to a level where it can be used in a reactor.
Known uranium reserves will last for roughly 50 years at present consumption rates, but the 438 plants operating world-wide produce only 16% of global requirements. If the world's entire electricity needs were to be met by nuclear power, then reserves of high-grade uranium ore would be used up within three to four years. Some estimates predict that using the remaining poorer ores in nuclear reactors could produce more CO2 emissions than burning fossil fuels directly.
So as a serious long-term energy source, nuclear power is a non-starter. But it has powerful vested interests behind it which are sucking up funding that would be better spent on renewable solutions and energy conservation. As in the 1950s when the first generation of nuclear plants were conceived, the government seems mesmerised by the glamour of nuclear power, and blinded to its obvious drawbacks. Any return to mainstream nuclear production would be a massive miscalculation, just at the time when we need to focus all our attention on the real solutions - energy conservation and renewable sources like wind, tidal and solar.