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Ivor's view: Let's get real over nuclear

Nuclear is a low carbon form of energy, and can help ease capacity shortages, says Atkins executive director Ivor Catto.

The Prime Minister's introduction this month's White Paper on nuclear power was all about the urgency of the need to tackle Climate Change; therefore new nuclear power stations should have a role to play in the UK's future energy mix, alongside other low carbon sources.

The response to the White Paper generated heat from commentators who objected to the "low carbon" label being applied to nuclear. What does the available science tell us? While nuclear power generation does produce very little greenhouse gases, what about whole life-cycle emissions? Then there is the question of refining lower grade uranium, which many campaigners claim would result in much higher emissions from nuclear power.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) published research in 2000 which compared the CO2 emissions of electricity generated from nuclear with those of hydropower, wind, solar, biomass, natural gas and coal. The conclusion was that nuclear produced 2-59 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour. Of the renewable options, only hydropower was lower than nuclear. Gas was in the 389-511 range, with coal at 790-1182.

The IEA study was backed up by British Energy's analysis of emissions from its Torness nuclear power station in 2005/06. This showed that CO2 emissions were just over 5g/kwh. Even using lower ore uranium only resulted in a rise to 6.85g/kwh.

Given that nuclear energy currently supplies 20% of the UK's electricity, and that all but one of our existing plants will be decommissioned over the next 20 years, one would imagine that most environmentalists would welcome the possibility of new nuclear build, with emissions considerably lower than those from our gas-fired power plants.

But no: then comes the objection that new nuclear power stations can only make a small contribution to cutting the UK's greenhouse gas emissions – because electricity generation represents a relatively small proportion of our energy needs. There is the further argument that nuclear power plants take a long time to build, so new ones won't help to reduce emissions any time before 2020.

Taking the first point: most commentators, even those in the green movement, accept that 10GW of new nuclear capacity would result in a cut of 4% in total current UK emissions.

Over 60 years, if new nuclear power stations only produced the same proportion of the UK's electricity as it does now, 1.6bn tonnes of carbon dioxide would be saved, about three times the current annual total.

This is the heart of the issue: no one who understands the nuclear industry would say that it represents the only answer to the pressing issue of climate change. It's just one among a number of low-carbon options that we need. Also, the fact that new nuclear plants can't make a difference tomorrow should not blind us to its potential as a long-term, sustainable source of energy.

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