Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Who says nuclear power is clean?

Opinion - Magnus Linklater Times Online

Magnus Linklater
Optimistic analysis of future energy policy is based on hopelessly misleading claims

THERE IS SOMETHING heart-sinkingly familiar about the following sentence: ?Mr Blair . . . believes that all the arguments point to nuclear power, and has effectively made up his mind, according to authoritative sources.?
We have become all too familiar with Mr Blair?s made-up mind ? it spells nothing but trouble. As Sir Christopher Meyer observed in his memoirs, when it comes to the big issues Mr Blair finds the details ?uncongenial?. Yet it is on the detail that the nuclear case stands or falls. This time we need to know whether he has understood the arguments rather than simply bought them.

Three massive claims are being made for Britain building a new generation of nuclear stations: first, it is the only way that Britain can meet its ambitious targets for reducing carbon emissions; secondly, it is the only reliable option available if we are to fill the ?energy gap? left by declining sources of fossil fuels; thirdly, it is the best way of ensuring that our energy comes from ?secure? sources, rather than unstable oil-rich oligarchies.

These claims are at best specious, at worst untrue. Take carbon emission. There is a blithe notion that nuclear power is ?clean? ? it emits no CO� and therefore does not contribute to global warming. This argument has been systematically taken apart over the past five years by two independent experts, Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Bartlett Smith, one a chemist and energy specialist, the other a nuclear physicist, who between them have a lifetime ?s experience in the nuclear industry. What they have done is look at the entire life cycle of a nuclear power station, from the mining of the uranium to the storage of the resulting nuclear waste. Their conclusions make grim reading for any nuclear advocate.

They say that at the present rate of use, worldwide supplies of rich uranium ore will soon become exhausted, perhaps within the next decade. Nuclear power stations of the future will have to reply on second-grade ore, which requires huge amounts of conventional energy to refine it. For each tonne of poor-quality uranium, some 5,000 tonnes of granite that contains it will have to be mined, milled and then disposed of. This could rise to 10,000 tonnes if the quality deteriorates further. At some point, and it could happen soon, the nuclear industry will be emitting as much carbon dioxide from mining and treating its ore as it saves from the ?clean? power it produces thanks to nuclear fission.

At this stage, according to an article in Prospect magazine by the energy writer David Fleming, ?nuclear power production would go into energy deficit. It would be putting more energy into the process than it could extract from it. Its contribution to meeting the world?s energy needs would become negative.? The so-called ?reliability? of nuclear power, which its proponents enthuse over, would therefore rest on the growing use of fossil fuels rather than their replacement.

Worse, the number of nuclear plants needed to meet the world?s needs would be colossal. At present, about 440 nuclear reactors supply about 2 per cent of demand. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculates that 1,000 more would be needed to raise this even to 10 per cent of need. At this point, the search for new sources of ore would become critical. Where would they come from? Not friendly Canada, which produces most of it at present, but places like Kazakhstan, hardly the most stable of democracies. So much for ?secure? sources of energy. We would find ourselves out of the oil-producing frying pan, right in the middle of the ore-manufacturing fire.

These arguments have to be met before other, more searching questions are answered about where we intend to store waste, what we are going to do to prevent radioactive leaks, and how we should protect nuclear plants against terrorism. The truth is that this form of energy is, in the end, no more safe, reliable or clean than the others. That does not mean turning our backs on it; it means confronting reality rather than myth. Some good, however, may come from the debate. The decision to go nuclear will, ironically, make the case for renewable energy stronger rather than weaker.

There has been a growing sense that the Government has lost faith with wind, wave and tidal power, on the grounds that the public has turned against them and that their efficiency is doubtful. Wind turbines in particular have been subjected to sustained local campaigns and derisive columns from the pro-nuclear lobby. They have one great advantage however ? they are genuinely renewable, and they are reversible. A wind turbine, unlike a nuclear reactor, can be removed once it has come to the end of its natural life. A wave machine can simply be towed away.

Nor, in comparison to nuclear power, are they gravely inefficient. Of course a wind farm depends on wind, which may or may not blow, and a wave machine similarly is weather-dependent. But both need to be part of Britain?s energy jigsaw. It is absurd, for instance, that the Government is withholding the �50 million investment that is needed to turn wave power into a commercial proposition. Experiments in the Orkney Islands have proved so promising that the Portuguese Government has bought the technology and is hoping to exploit it industrially in its own waters. Why can?t we do the same?

Tony Blair may have made up his mind on nuclear power, but he must not close it to other options. Nuclear is not trouble-free, and the more you look at it, the more enticing the other choices become.


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