Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The nuclear nettle

The nuclear nettle - Comment - Times Online

It is time to push ahead with a new generation of reactors

Britain has, on the whole, been lucky with energy. North Sea oil and gas have helped provide the vast majority of power needs. This happy state has led many to bury their heads in the sand when it comes to future requirements. But if ever there was a time to scan the horizon, it is now.
North Sea energy stocks are dwindling. Oil prices have been volatile. Britain?s nuclear and coal-fired plants are due for increasingly rapid decommissioning. And all this at a time when domestic energy demand is projected to rise just as Britain tries to cut its carbon emissions to those levels agreed at Kyoto. It is therefore encouraging that, as we report today, the government is at last prepared to grasp the nuclear nettle.

Nuclear energy is an emotive subject, and it was politically understandable, though democratically lamentable, that the Prime Minister wanted to avoid it until after this year?s general election. But, stripped of emotion, the position is stark. Britain?s 12 ageing nuclear power stations provide a fifth of the country?s energy needs. Yet all but one will be out of business by 2023. Many coal-fired plants, which produce another 30 per cent, fall foul of Brussels rules on clean air and will also be shutting down over the next two decades. By then, Britain will need to find 50 gigawatts of new capacity. Given the lead time for any successor plants to be designed, approved and phased in, decisions need to be made in the next year or two.

One of the looming problems for the Government is self-made. It has allowed the vacuum over its nuclear policy to be filled by hopes for the possibilities of wind power and other renewables that are bit-part players. Those who believe giant turbines can close the energy gap are thinking with their hearts rather than their heads. Wind power, by definition, depends on the wind blowing not too weak and not too strong. Wind farms run well below their capacity, (around 15 per cent in Germany). And they are unlikely even to be up to the job of providing 10 per cent of our electricity by 2020, the Government?s target.

There will inevitably be an ugly political battle, but it is winnable. The ace is climate change. For those concerned about global warming, nuclear power is the logical step. It is clean, carbon-free, and it is relatively cheap ? up to a third of the price of fossil fuels and nearly half the price of wind power per kilowatt-hour. New pressurised water reactors produce a tenth of the waste of the current reactors, (though what to do with that waste needs to be addressed, as does the security of any new plants, given the new terrorist threat.) But shut-down technology should make another Chernobyl disaster impossible. If new reactors are sited at current power stations, planning battles with local communities will be minimised.

Mr Blair should continue to encourage renewable sources. The potential of wave power and tidal waters should be explored; and there must be much more research into making the storage of solar energy more efficient ? Sharp, the Japanese electronics company, claims to be close to a breakthrough in this area. But in the meantime he should ask the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate to begin examining existing nuclear sites for future use. Nuclear reactors may not be what Mr Blair has in mind when he thinks of his legacy. But the next generation would thank him for this initiative.


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