Head to head: Does the UK need nuclear power?

15th May 2011

Nuclear power

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In light of the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, Mark Lynas and Jeremy Leggett give their opinions

Mark Lynas

Author of two major books on climate change

My position on nuclear power is very simple: I don’t think environmentalists should oppose any viable source of low-carbon power.

This is certainly the lesson of history: there were many nuclear plants planned or even built in the 1970s and 1980s that were opposed by environmental activists and were instead converted to coal.

Thanks to the anti-nuclear movement, countless billions of tonnes of extra carbon dioxide have now accumulated in the atmosphere and are contributing to accelerated global warming. I sincerely hope that the Fukushima accident does not force us into repeating this epochal ecological mistake at just the time that the nuclear industry was looking forward to a wider renaissance.

Just to be clear: nuclear is only part of the solution anywhere, and is certainly not appropriate in every country.

In my work as adviser to the president of the Maldives, I do not advocate nuclear as part of the energy mix as this sprawling nation of low-lying islands aims towards carbon neutrality. The Maldives needs solar energy primarily, with some contribution from wind, marine energy and, of course, the necessary dispatchable backup power.

I’m an enthusiastic solar advocate for Australia and North Africa too. Better and more long-distance grid connections in Europe mean that a much higher proportion of renewables can be brought onto the grid here too. Hydropower in Norway can balance out the intermittency of offshore wind produced in the North Sea.

But we will still need nuclear in the UK mix, for as long as we have a baseload demand that would otherwise be supplied by coal or gas. As the French have demonstrated, it is possible to manage a balanced power grid with up to 80% nuclear energy, and to provide cheap and safe electricity at the same time.

Fukushima demonstrates that nuclear – like any energy technology – has risks, but that they are not nearly so large as much of the public, egged on, it must be admitted, by unscientific exaggerations propagated by green groups, fears.

The elevated levels of radioactivity released by Fukushima will not have an effect on the health of any members of the public anywhere in the world, and we should be thankful for that. Oil, gas and coal are vastly more dangerous, as a litany of disasters with death tolls in the hundreds have demonstrated.

My conclusion? Keep nuclear in the mix, and do everything possible to run down and then eliminate humanity’s use of fossil fuel.

Jeremy Leggett

Founder and chair of Solarcentury, the UK's largest solar solutions company

Of the many arguments for phasing out nuclear power, the three most troublesome for nuclear advocates involve economics, timing and proliferation.

To give the economics of a new nuclear power plant a chance to work, a subsidy is required that is unlike a feed-in tariff (FIT) for renewables in two ways. First, it extends decades into the future without declining. A FIT declines to zero within a matter of years as costs come down. Second, the nuclear subsidy is of unknowably huge magnitude. This off-balance-sheet prop must socialise the cost of waste disposal, decommissioning, security, transporation, accidents and clean-ups.

Existing estimates give a feel for the eventual multi-hundred-billion-dollar scale. The latest estimates for decommissioning just 19 British reactors exceeds £70 billion. No estimate for waste disposal is yet possible, given that plans for large-scale high-level waste disposal are still incomplete. When nuclear advocates state a price for nuclear electricity, they ignore all these costs.

They assume that our descendants will pay for them, somehow – not the companies building and operating the plants. Meanwhile, the plunging costs of many cleantech industries ensure that there will be multiple options cheaper than nuclear power, even allowing the latter its off-balance-sheet voodoo economics.

By the nuclear industry’s own admission, given the current operating conditions in Europe, it needs a minimum of 10 years to build a next-generation reactor. This period is now bound to extend, for two reasons.

First, the post-Fukushima audits announced by many governments will undoubtedly tighten and lengthen permitting periods. Second, the industry seems to have forgotten how to build nuclear power plants efficiently.

Areva’s two pilot next-generation power plants in France and Finland are both billions of euros over budget and years behind schedule. The point about timing is that we don’t have the 10 years needed for either of the two main crises that nuclear power would need to address: climate change and energy security.

The proliferation risk builds by the year if western countries cannot fashion an energy future without nuclear power. This is because it is difficult to hold a piece a paper between civil- and military-capable nuclear programmes. If western nuclear companies are allowed to continue pushing their technology into the developing world, it will become harder and harder to enforce safeguards.

A next-generation of nuclear power plants (eventually) is not worth the loss of a city.

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