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Should the UK build nuclear power stations?

The pros and cons of nuclear power

Nuclear power is a contentious and emotive issue for many. I lived for a year in a Lakeland valley less than 10 miles from Sellafield nuclear power station, and which fell within the dispersal area of radioactive pollution. The then chief executive had the unfortunate name of Con Allday: it did not inspire confidence in the locals. In trying to make my own mind up, I want to look at five factors: cost, safety, climate change, waste and timeliness. Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer: like many questions related to energy it comes down to what your priorities are.

Cost. Those who argue against renewables often cite the subsidies given. Pofessor David MacKay in his data-rich (and free) book 'Sustainable Energy - without the hot air' demonstrates that the economic costs of nuclear cleanup work out at 2.3p / kWh. It's not a small subsidy but it is less than that given to offshore wind (7p / kWh). Current UK plants are expected to exceed £73bn in decommissioning costs. What about fuel cost? Because uranium contains so much more energy than other fuels, much less is needed and so fuel costs are a small component compared with construction and decommissioning costs. There should therefore be few 'price shocks' for consumers over the years. If cost to consumers is regarded as important (and it usually is by politicians) then nuclear is attractive.

Safety. As David MacKay points out, nuclear power is dangerous but not infinitely dangerous, much as other methods of producing energy are dangerous: per gigawatt-year of energy produced, coal and oil have the highest death rates, and nuclear and wind have the least. Fukushima though caused a re-evaluation in many countries. Germany has permanently shut down eight of its reactors and pledged to close the rest by 2022. The Italians have voted overwhelmingly to keep their country non-nuclear. Switzerland and Spain have banned the construction of new reactors. In September 2013 Japan shut down all its nuclear reactors until at least December. Belgium is considering phasing out its nuclear plants, perhaps as early as 2015. Many countries remain opposed to nuclear power. Prior to Fukushima, Scotland had already declared there would be no more nuclear power stations built (in theory it can't decide this as energy policy is not a matter devolved from Westminster, but as planning policy is devolved, all Scotland has to do is refuse planning permission). George Monbiot, the environmental writer, put the cat among the pigeons however by changing his anti-nuclear position to a pro-nuclear one because of Fukushima, in particular that despite the catastrophic failure of all the safety systems there were no lethal doses of radiation.

Climate change. In the 1990s, nuclear power was unpopular. The UK 2003 energy white paper saw no role for nuclear power. But then climate change concerns started to work in the nuclear industry's favour and they realised they had a marketing opportunity: to portray themselves as green. Nuclear consequently got a foot in the door of government energy policy only 3 years later, in the 2006 UK energy review, when the government got cold feet that its clean energy targets weren’t going to be met and decided there was a role for nuclear after all. This was bolstered in 2008 by 'Meeting the Energy Challenge': a white paper on nuclear power'. Nuclear power was back, and raising its profile.

Waste. (All figures from David MacKay's book). In the UK the volume of ash from ten coal fired power stations is roughly 40 litres per person per year. Municipal waste is 517kg per person. Hazardous waste is 83kg per person. High level nuclear waste ('the really nasty stuff') from Britain's ten nuclear power stations is 25ml per person year. A way of safely storing this for 1,000 years needs to be engineered but the volumes are small.

Timeliness. Different power generating technologies have different lead in times. You can get a wind farm up and running in 4 years. A gas plant in 7 years. A coal plant in 10 years. For a nuclear power station, you are talking perhaps 15-17 years. These are all averages and will vary somewhat based on site specific conditions but they offer a reasonable order of magnitude figure for comparative purposes. Scotland is pushing very hard to generate all its electricity sustainably by 2020. That is never going to happen if generating capacity takes longer than that to build. That is one argument for the wind farms springing up all over Scotland: they can be up and running relatively quickly.

Nuclear power. Like George Monbiot, I wish we didn't need to have anything to do with it, but he may have a point. I am agnostic on the matter, but I can see why politicians are juggling this emotive issue, even though they'd rather not.

This is just one of the stories from my energy talk

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