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Nuclear reactors


Even with major technological improvement, 'as long as electricity generation is based primarily on fossil fuels, there will be significant emissions of carbon dioxide', a Government report on climate change has concluded. Emission levels are now stable, but as existing nuclear power stations reach the end of their design lives, carbon dioxide levels are set to rise. This week we ask: Should the UK commission a new generation of nuclear reactors?


John Mills, director of Allott & Lomax and director of the British Nuclear Industry Forum

Headlines such as 'Nuclear Power Vital for Climate Targets' and 'Scientists Want More Nuclear Power' would have been unthinkable five years ago. But these appeared in the press last year following publication of Royal Society/Royal Academy of Engineering research into the future of nuclear energy.

For too long nuclear energy has been 'the unspoken option' - an area of energy policy where opinion and policy are formed in profound ignorance of the facts.

Nuclear energy is the largest single source of electricity in Europe. It meets nearly 30% of the UK's electricity needs but, over the next 20 years, this proportion will fall to 3%. The only operating nuclear power station from 2020 will be Sizewell B.

The price of nuclear power is high. But the true cost of increased dependence on fossil fuels is higher. It could, literally, cost us the earth.

I believe the policy of burning gas to generate electricity will be viewed by future generations as hypocrisy of the highest order. We are claiming to be committed to sustainability and international protocols on global warming - to turn our backs on a source of power from which carbon dioxide emissions are negligible seems perverse.

Nuclear energy is climate friendly. About 63M.t of carbon dioxide - the equivalent of nearly half the emissions from the UK's road vehicles - would have been emitted last year if nuclear's generating output had been from coal and gas plants.

The Government climate change consultation warns, 'as nuclear stations begin to close, carbon emissions will again begin to rise.' Renewable energy and better energy conservation undoubtedly have important roles to play, but without new nuclear build, a yawning CO2 gap will open up. As the Commons Trade and Industry Committee has put it: 'The Kyoto Protocol and the UK's own CO2 emission targets cannot but lead to reopening the question as to whether new nuclear generating capacity should be envisaged. The question as to eventual new nuclear build cannot and must not be ducked any longer.'

Together with renewables and better energy conservation, nuclear energy should be viewed as part of the solution to global warming. Policy makers need to ensure replacement nuclear build gets firmly back on the agenda.


John Large, independent consultant and head of Large Associates

The idea that future generations will sort out its problems is ingrained in the nuclear industry's psyche. You can take past performance as a portent for what's likely to be done in the future.

More than 30 years ago when the UK embarked on its nuclear adventure, no sound radioactive waste management strategy was planned. Little research and development was undertaken on discharge abatement technology. Britain has dumped thousands of tonnes of radioactive waste into the sea.

Regulators have been forced to allow the discharge of vast quantities of radioactive effluent because the state of available technology offered no alternative option. Even 'modern' nuclear facilities are designed to discharge.

Three decades ago, politicians promised almost free electricity. The pro-nuclear case was based on the 'fuel cycle' scam in which the Magnox power stations were to breed fuel for a future generation of plutonium fast reactors. Tucked in the middle were advanced gas cooled reactors whose fuel, once reprocessed, would provide reusable, slightly enriched uranium fuel for the Magnox reactors and more plutonium for the fast reactors.

Fast reactors never reached commercial fruition, reprocessing plants were far too late in commissioning and, as a fuel source, advanced gas cooled reactors disappointed in performance.

But we were so absorbed in developing the fuel cycle technology that nobody considered how to safely and completely decommission the ageing reactors built during the 1960s. It is intended to leave the decaying hulks of these nuclear plants for at least 150 years for some distant generation to inherit.

Britain's headlong rush into nuclear power has left behind a legacy of unresolved and challenging environmental issues. Arguably, the long- term problems posed by our nuclear power station legacy is comparable with that of global warming.

The nuclear industry has a near monopoly on expertise and is able to dictate what is the 'best' technology. Nothing indicates its approach to the design of new reactors would break with or improve on past practice.

To be fair, nuclear power plants do not emit greenhouse gases. But to make climate change the basis for building more nuclear power plants beggars belief.

The facts

Greenhouse gases emitted by the UK energy sector are forecast to rise from 45.6M.t this year to 47.7M.t by 2020.

Nuclear power contributes 26% of the UK's electricity. If replaced with fossil-fuel based generating capability carbon dioxide emissions would rise by 24M.t.

Magnox reactors built in the late 1960s are due to be decommissioned from 2005. More than 60% UK nuclear generating capacity will be lost by 2012.

Global temperature rise in the next century is expected to be 4degreesC.

The Government wants 10% of electricity to be produced by 'renewables' by2010.

The draft UK programme on climate change is available on tel (0870) 1226 236.

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