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Cooling on nuclear power

Comment

What do I fear more - global warming or nuclear power?

Frankly, right now it is a no-brainer.

From my relatively comfortable armchair, the latest report that climate change could melt all the Arctic ice by 2060 scares me to death. We absolutely need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions - now.

Nuclear power, as we know, can do this. It is the 'easy', obvious solution. Well constructed, maintained and operated nuclear power stations are clean, safe and efficient.

The trouble is, in the real world things are not that straightforward.

If I lived, for example, in Chernobyl, my view of relative fears would certainly be different.

And for that matter, if I lived near Sellafild, Dungeness, Hinkley Point or any of the UK's 16 operational nuclear power stations or former nuclear facilities I know that 'nuclear fears' would be higher up my personal agenda.

I say 'nuclear fears' because I know they are not always based on anything solid. Yet the fact is that, rightly or wrongly, I cannot sit on the beaches of Suffolk without glancing at Sizewell and worrying. In such a beautiful location I always find myself, certainly irrationally, mulling over the risk and consequences of accident (very, very low) and the risk and consequences of radioactive leakage (also very, very low).

Like it or not, my thoughts are interrupted by the debate over what to do with radioactive waste, how much it really costs to generate nuclear energy, the technical realities of decommissioning and the attractiveness of nuclear power to terrorists.

A ridiculous, selfish or self indulgent attitude perhaps. The pro-nuclear lobby would, I am sure, remind me that my fears and worries would be better targeted towards the very real and very measurable negative impact that fossil fuel energy generation is having on the planet.

And besides, current UK energy policy is undoubtedly driving the nation towards problems. The cost of power is spiralling upwards, making industry uncompetitive and - by relying increasingly on overseas gas supplies to generate our power - we are hugely vulnerable. The lights really will go out.

Certainly we need to do something and fast. But then the antinuclear lobby would tell me the same thing.

All of which leaves me in the same position as Tony Blair - surrounded by information, facts and opinion and in need of a decision.

So time to come off the fence - and for me nuclear power is not the solution.

Based on what I know, what I see and what I feel, I do not believe that building new nuclear reactors in the UK is the right way to solve the nation's energy crisis or reverse the world's climate change disaster.

Certainly, it would help to solve these very important and scary problems. But the financial and social costs are too high, so politically it is just not going to happen.

I am under no illusions about the scale of the task ahead if we rule out the 'easy' nuclear option - it will require a massive investment of time, effort and money to make 'renewable' alternatives realistic.

But now is not the time for 'there's no alternative to nuclear power' - I think we are better than that.

This is a golden opportunity for the engineering profession.

Commitment and funding made nuclear power possible 50 years ago. Similar public and private support will enable us to create the next clean energy industry to export around the world. Let's get on with it.

Antony Oliver is NCE's editor

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