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Balancing the nuclear equation

Tony Blair and I share a problem.

Early in his next session, and possibly when I am 'a most senior member of this Institution', we will be pressed to support the promotion of a new generation of nuclear power stations. Blair will be facing a serious back bench revolt and I will be faced with the need to toe the party line. Clearly a President who opposes a series of capital projects of enormous economic importance to our industry will not be appreciated by the big boys behind the scenes.

The groundwork for this debate is already in place. The Government's draft programme on climate change implies that the decline in nuclear generation over the next 20 years will be offset by a new generation of combined cycle gas turbines.

These have promised efficiencies of up to 60% and emit half the carbon dioxide for the same unit of electricity generated from coal or oil. This is nothing like the near zero carbon dioxide emissions nuclear power is 'blessed' with: a fact not missed by John Mills (NCE 30 March).

Backing Mills' argument is a major report from a joint working party of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, which supports the conclusions reached by the Trade and Industry Committee that '. . . for the purposes of long term planning, new nuclear plant may be required in the next two decades (requiring). . . a decision to be taken. . . early in the next administration'.

As you might imagine, I am not so keen but I am not an expert. My thoughts to date have been based on my instincts and the fact that many of the people I chose to listen to in the past have been proved right.

Mills suggests that nuclear energy is 'an area of policy where opinions are formed in profound ignorance of the facts', which in my case is probably correct. I am aware of my prejudice as far as the subject is concerned but was interested in the Royal Society's and Royal Academy's report as this was quick to dismiss solar photovoltaic power. It noted that 'the energy required to fabricate a cell would take at least two years in service to recoup'. This was the only mention of embodied energy (energy used in construction) in all the various energy generating systems evaluated and it struck me that two years is not that long.

The only reference I could find to combined energy in nuclear power stations was in a 1970's publication by Peter Chapman called Fuels Paradise. This suggested that exactly the same payback period was required for nuclear power - ie in the 1970s it took two years for a nuclear power station to recoup the energy invested - and that was when we had no long term policy for waste management and did not account for decommissioning.

But even ignoring the latter, there is still a fundamental piece of economics missing. If we invest energy in solar power, it starts working for us tomorrow.

When we invest energy in nuclear power, on the basis that it takes six years to build a plant, I suggest it takes three years on average before we get a return on the total carbon invested. So ignoring the financial arguments, what is the best way to spend the energy we have to reduce future carbon dioxide emissions? Compound interest calculations put nuclear at a 2:1 disadvantage. Over to you, Mills and the rest of the experts.

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