Thursday, December 01, 2005

The key questions on energy

Telegraph | News | The key questions on energy

Why can't we just buy gas or oil on the world market?

Much of the gas we will need in future comes from unstable regions of the world, principally Russia, or is transported across them. This can lead to price rises in times of political instability.

Climate change agreements, such as the successor to Kyoto being negotiated in Montreal this week, are likely to mean we need to emit less carbon from fossil fuels, meaning we cannot burn more coal.

Why did we ever stop building nuclear power stations then?

Nuclear power never lived up to early promises that it would be too cheap to meter.

The last nuclear power station built in Britain, Sizewell B, took 10 years to get through the planning system and its costs rose from �1.3 billion to �3 billion in the process.

The cost of disposing of the civil nuclear industry's legacy of waste is estimated to be �56 billion - far too much for anyone but the Government to pay for. Fear of future public liabilities, and concern about nuclear power facilities being a target for terrorists, have put nuclear programmes worldwide on hold until now.

So what is the big advantage of nuclear power?

Total predictability and the total absence of carbon dioxide emissions. The nuclear "baseload" - now about 30 per cent of all power generation - gives the market stability.

Why didn't we start thinking about renewing these stations a bit earlier?

You may well ask. Britain's ageing Magnox nuclear power stations are going to be decommissioned by 2010 for reasons of age and international environmental commitments. The rest will follow. Yet the 2003 White Paper ducked building more, even though a realistic lead time for this was 10-15 years.

The Government has been accused of ducking the crucial waste issue, too, kicking it into its third term after the Tories turned down an experimental shaft at Sellafield in 1997.

A Government committee, given the remit of examining all sorts of impractical options for disposing of nuclear waste, including firing it into space, will report in 2006. Few believe it will recommend anything other than a secure hole in the rock, which is where we were before.

How do we know whether we should have nuclear rather than new, clean technologies?

That is what this review will supposedly help us decide. Tidal, solar, wind and biomass energy are either carbon free or carbon neutral and might genuinely be as economic, or cheaper, than nuclear.

Ministers insisted yesterday that they would be evaluating tidal technology, one of the most promising, with a timescale for development similar to nuclear power stations, as well as nuclear technology.


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