Can nuclear power stop climate change?
Much is made of nuclear power being essential for tacking climate change because it is CO2 free, but even at the most optimistic build rate, 10 new reactors by 2025, the UK's carbon emissions would be cut by just four per cent.
The UK has a binding target of a 34 per cent cut by 2020, meaning that new nuclear’s ability to help meet our obligations is tiny.
We only have so much time and money to spend and must prioritise those technologies with the greatest potential to meet our energy needs and cut emissions.
These options are challenging and require support and concerted government effort to deliver (just like nuclear power), but with that support this mix has the potential to deliver reliable low carbon energy quicker, cheaper and more effectively than nuclear electric.
We’re campaigning for a low carbon economy that maximises energy efficiency and puts clean energy at its heart.
Can we keep the lights on without nuclear power?
Since it is likely that not a single new reactor will come into operation over the next decade, new nuclear power can make no obvious contribution to our electricity supply until years after any potential ‘energy gap’ would need to be dealt with.
Rather than concentrating on getting nuclear on-stream at some point after 2020, the government should be focussing on all the sensible alternatives that already exist and can close any energy gap, cut emissions and move us towards a clean energy future.
Large scale electricity generation could be met by developing many different cleaner alternatives, including combined heat and power (CHP), using fossil fuels more efficiently and cleanly, and renewable electricity generation such as wind, wave and tidal power.
If we focused on energy efficiency alone, the single most cost-effective way of making deep cuts to our greenhouse gas emissions, it would help the climate and deliver substantial economic savings at the same time.
Supporting the growth in industries that use the power of the wind, waves and sun will not only power our country but also create jobs, new businesses and help make Britain a world-leader in cutting edge 21st century technologies.
A major study by consultants McKinsey, scientists at Imperial College London and partners in the energy industry showed that it's entirely possible to have 80 per cent renewable power in Europe by 2050, at the same price and as reliable as energy today.
If we used all of these technologies, most of them already at our disposal, we would secure both the climate and our energy supply. All without the need for new nuclear.
Nuclear power as part of the mix?
The problem with including nuclear power as part of a diversified energy system is that it could undermine the solutions that can deliver energy and emissions cuts quicker and cheaper.
New nuclear will lock us into the same old inflexible, inefficient and outdated energy system we’ve had for years. Such a system, with nuclear at its heart, has almost no room for effective, cutting edge and flexible technologies like wind power and CHP.
New nuclear also means that the more cost effective, readily available alternatives above would be hindered because making nuclear a reality requires every ounce of financial, regulatory and political will on the part of the government.
Major utilities EDF and Eon have admitted that nuclear power and major new renewable energy developments cannot coexist. They say they would scale back renewable energy investment to accommodate nuclear.
Renewable energy and energy efficiency are booming in other countries. These technologies could be the cornerstone of a green economic recovery in the UK, secure our power and offer a springboard for greater emission reductions in future.
Even though we have an abundance of wind and waves and the engineering skill to deliver renewable energy expansion, we are falling well behind other countries, including China and the US, and are not reaping the benefits because this is not a focus or priority for the UK government. There is a danger that much of the economic benefits of renewable energy will go abroad whilst we continue to focus on fostering nuclear power.
And then there’s the waste…
Nuclear waste is produced at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining and enrichment, to reactor operation and the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. Much of this nuclear waste will remain hazardous for hundreds of thousands of years.
The current “solution” for dealing with highly radioactive nuclear waste involves burying it in deep underground sites. Whether the storage containers, the store itself, or the surrounding rocks will offer enough protection to stop radioactivity from escaping in the long-term is impossible to predict.
To give you an idea of the scale of the problem, if the people who build the pyramids had used them to store radioactive waste, today it’d only be 2% of the way through the time it would need to be stored securely. That’s a major commitment that we’d be making on behalf of our children’s children, and their children’s children, and their…
And we already have huge amounts of radioactive waste in Britain that we have no idea how to deal with in the long-term. If ten new nuclear plants are built the waste they create would increase the overall radioactivity of this country’s atomic legacy by three times.