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Green monster

Nuclear power is claimed to be the green solution for our energy needs. But questions about our energy mix remain.

It may have been unthinkable only a few years ago, but last week the government ushered in a new generation of nuclear power plants by using an environmental argument in support of their construction.

Nuclear power's low level of carbon emissions compared to coal and gas, combined with its greater level of predictability than renewable energy, has seen it rise from political outsider to become a central plank in the Government's attempt to deliver an energy mix that can combat climate change.

That carbon emissions are intrinsically linked to climate change has become something of a 21st century axiom. Nuclear fission is a carbon-neutral energy source and in these overheated times, such a source of power is becoming increasingly attractive even if the general public's attitude to the nuclear industry is ambivalent.

Indeed, given that 20% of energy consumed in the UK is produced by nuclear power, one might even venture that popular attitudes to the nuclear industry are positively hypocritical.

Nuclear also offers greater security of supply, another strategic advantage given that the UK is now a net importer of gas, relying on supply from countries such as Russia and Algeria, neither a strong political ally of the UK.

And if one ignores the elephant in the room that is the prohibitively large construction cost of nuclear plants and the problems of disposing of nuclear waste, nuclear can be seen as price competitive with other forms of electricity generation (see below).

Unsurprisingly, the nuclear industry and the engineering profession welcomed the change in government policy, while the environmental lobby and renewable energy industries were aghast at the prospect of anything up to dozen new power stations and the proposed construction of a long-term geological waste storage facility.

Lord O'Neill, the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) chairman, said: "This is a milestone for the UK nuclear industry and for the UK's future energy policy. It recognises nuclear's importance in fighting climate change and in securing the UK's electricity supplies well in to the future."

"The Government's decision to back a new generation of nuclear power stations is welcome, if overdue," said Civil Engineering Contractor's Association director Rosemary Beales.

Before the announced change in policy, the Royal Academy of Engineers had urged the government to, "give the go-ahead to allow new nuclear build as part of the balanced energy mix needed to tackle climate change and provide secure long term energy supplies".

It is the phrase "balanced energy mix" that goes to the heart of the matter. The adoption of a long-term strategic position on energy that fails to include nuclear energy at least as an option is short-sighted at best and at worst; based on emotive and not necessarily rational arguments.

There is every likelihood that Greenpeace will launch a fresh challenge to the Government's second consultation on nuclear power, which informed last week's announcement. This should not prevent energy firms pressing on with the development of projects; given that the gestation period before the ground ever gets broken could be anything up to 10 years, it makes sense to press ahead with the aspects of projects that can be addressed even with a legal challenge looming.

"Investors want political and regulatory certainty before committing large sums of money and [this] decision helps to provide that certainty," says Association of Electricity Producers chief executive David Porter.

So, where do we go from here?

Privatisation of the energy market means that any nuclear power station project undertaken as a result of this policy change will be dictated by market forces.

"All the UK government is trying to do is create an environment that is conducive to the building of nuclear power stations," says Simon Harrison, a director at Mott MacDonald's energy division.

"Over the past couple of years, a good deal of work has been done to streamline the permitting process for individual power stations and this will go some way towards speeding up the design side of business in that the available designs for power stations can be dealt with under generic licensing agreements," he added.

But these are uncertain times for the global economy. Unquestionably, the price of fossil fuels continues its inexorable rise but a United States recession or indeed a downturn in the roaring Chinese economy could change all that. In the event of global recession, the capital cost of nuclear power station construction could become distinctly unattractive.

Attendant uncertainty in the carbon pricing market is also likely to be an issue affecting the nuclear construction programme, according to Parsons Brinckerhoff director of nuclear services Alistair Smith.

The government needs to provide assurances that there is something approaching joined up thinking on emissions reduction and trading . This will determine the competitiveness of non-nuclear forms of electricity generation – a vital factor when the cost of nuclear power generation is being weighed up.

Of the world's electricity is nuclear generated

Of NCE readers say nuclear can combat climate change

Less waste produced by new plants according to EU

Nuclear energy is considered a low carbon energy, indeed during operation zero carbon dioxide is emitted. Whole life cycle emissions are also low, with the International Energy Association finding in 2000 that only hydropower is lower (see viewpoint, right). Yet there are clearly issues: The Committee on Radioactive Waste Management has found that through waste from generation and plant decommissioning, Britain's existing fleet of nuclear power stations will produce 470,000m3 of radioactive material that needs to be disposed of. And then there is always the risk of disaster - the World Health Organisation believes that 9,000 cancer deaths have been caused by the Chernobyl accident.

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