Brown Melts Down and Goes Nuclear
Gordon Brown's administration today gave the green light for new nuclear power stations to be built in the UK. The move has been denounced by environmentalists, politicians, academics and economists as a caving in by the government at a crucial time in the fight to tackle growing greenhouse gas emissions and the issue of energy security.
Nuclear power, or atomic energy, is often proposed as a zero-emission form of electricity generation, which would help the UK meet its greenhouse gas emission goals. It is also suggested as a way to reduce the UK's reliance on foreign oil, gas, coal and electricity imports.
N.B. In this instance, 'nuclear power' refers to the traditional method of producing electricity from the heat generated by 'nuclear fission' (the process of splitting a large atom open), as opposed to the futuristic method of 'nuclear fusion' (the process of joining two small atoms together, which releases much more energy without the radioactive waste).
Low Carbon Emissions and Energy Independence
However, nuclear power is currently a 'low-carbon' source of energy, rather than a carbon neutral source, as it still requires two types of uranium to be mined, transported and enriched before it can be used to generate power. This process involves the use of fossil fuels used in the mining and logistics industries as well as for the power required to enrich the nuclear fuel. Added to that are the fossil fuels used to build the nuclear power station in the first place, which can be produced over a period of 10-15 years or more, depending on how long it takes to build the plant. One more thing: the UK does not have any uranium reserves so it all has to be imported from abroad, which means we will not become more energy independent.
The Cost and Subsidies
In addition to these problems, many other countries are planning to build nuclear power stations. This means that there will be increased demand for uranium, which will ultimately increase its cost. As with oil today, the price of uranium may become an important factor in the future.
The cost of uranium has already increased by 1300% since the year 2000, so it is impossible to calculate the true cost of nuclear power over the next few decades. And who do the government propose should pay for this increased cost? The taxpayer, of course! Furthermore, the latest White Paper released today by the government caps the nuclear industry's cost liability at around half the current cost of generating electricity that way, which basically means that the taxpayer will have to subsidise at least half the cost of nuclear power. Why can't that money go to renewable energy instead?
Then there is the biggest problem of all: radioactive waste. When uranium has been used in a nuclear fission reactor, it is still dangerously radioactive and remains so for thousands of years. 40 years ago, the brightest minds on the planet proposed that the best way to rid ourselves of this waste was to dig a big hole and bury it. 40 years later, the nuclear industry are now suggesting that we get rid of the waste by (wait for it...!) digging a big hole and burying it. It has also been suggested that we could put it all in a rocket and send it into outer space, or plunge it into the sun, but the potential dangers of a rocket exploding shortly after take-off with a payload of plutonium on board are unthinkable and will probably keep that suggestion on the shelf for a while.
Finally, there is the danger. When the Chernobyl accident occurred in 1986, radioactive waste spread across the whole of Europe. The land around the old reactor is now useless. Had the wind been blowing in a more southerly direction on that particular day, or during the weeks afterwards, the city of Minsk may have had to have been permanently evacuated. Imagine that - a major city consigned to ghost town status. Even in the UK today, certain farms are still under restrictions because of radiation levels caused by that accident (see 'The Chernobyl Disaster' on the BBC website). The nuclear industry assures us that modern reactors are safe, but we'll never really know until something goes wrong and there are plenty of examples of things going wrong at many UK nuclear power plants.
A Summary of Nuclear Power
So why has the government opted to allow new nuclear power stations to be built on UK soil? I've decided to write a list of the Pros and Cons of nuclear power, to make the situation as I see it a little clearer.
The Pros of Nuclear Power
- Reduced future dependence on foreign oil and gas (usually from Norway)
- Reduced future dependence on foreign electricity imports (usually from France)
- Constant and controllable rate of power supplied to the grid
- Lower carbon emissions than fossil fuels
- Nuclear power stations can also be used to build nuclear weapons
The Cons of Nuclear Power
- Increased vulnerability to the price of uranium
- High, potentially unlimited cost of electricity generation, heavily subsidised by the taxpayer (mostly due to the cost of indefinite storage of radioactive waste)
- Increased dependence on and competition for supply of uranium
- Power stations take at least 10-15 years to build, when built on time
- A nuclear power station has never been built on time and on budget
- Useful uranium reserves are finite and will run out one day, just like fossil fuels
- Power stations often out of action due to safety concerns and maintenance
- Radioactive contamination of area surrounding power stations
- Danger of nuclear meltdown
- Low energy yield when compared to energy required to acquire useful nuclear fuel
- Building new nuclear power stations Will only reduce UK carbon emission by about 4%
- Pumping public money into nuclear power reduces the money and resources available to the renewable energy industry.
- Nuclear power stations can also be used to build nuclear weapons (could be a pro or a con, depending on your point of view!)
The Alternatives to the Nuclear Option
It is estimated that offshore wind turbines could generate as much as 10 times our annual electricity needs (Source: DTI). It is estimated that if solar panels were placed on every UK rooftop, that would be enough to meet all our electricity needs (Source: DTI). Tidal and wave power could generate about 20% of our electricity needs (Source: DTI).
The best alternative would be a mixture of renewable energy sources. Wind power is best from November to February, with solar power reaching its peak from April to September. Tidal power is extremely regular, reliable and, combined with wave power, can supplement wind and solar to drastically reduce our greenhouse gas emission as well as our reliance on foreign gas, oil and electricity.
They can also be combined with other measures such as micro generation, combined power and heat systems and energy efficiency measures to further help the cause. Furthermore, a Trans-European 'Supergrid' is proposed to help even out the supply and demand problems associated with renewable energy generation across the continent and throughout the year, even extending to the Saharan countries of Northern Africa to make use of its vast solar potential.
So why do we need nuclear? I'm not too sure, but I would guess it is more to do with aiding companies in the nuclear industry and retaining the ability to produce nuclear weapons than anything else; the other reasons just don't stack up.
Photo: Petr Adamek in October 2005 (Public Domain) - image cropped and converted to greyscale before use.