Nu, but not clear

25 January 2008

There can be very few words more emotive than nuclear. Therefore I’m surprised by the total lack of any mass protest against our government’s recent announcement that it will allow private companies to build new nuclear power stations across Britain.

Of course there are many good reasons to use nuclear power to generate electricity. Firstly it’s a genuine low CO2 technology, one of the few that is currently established and affordable. Both the CO2 emissions and the costs of nuclear are comparable with on shore wind and are much lower than those of solar panels, despite their much ‘cleaner’ image.

Nuclear is also a very dependable technology, and is a ‘secure’ supply of energy. You can stockpile years’ worth of fuel, so if you fall out with the people you are buying it from you have plenty of time to find an alternative source. This contrasts very well with gas fired generation, accounting for a whopping 39% of our electricity as well as much of our heating, and for which you can only store about a week’s supply.

One big problem with nuclear power is how to dispose of the radioactive waste produced in the process. The technical solution to this is called ‘deep geological disposal’, as the Americans are doing at Yucca Mountain. You find a sparsely populated area on very stable rock, dig a very, very deep hole, put in your waste, seal it up and leave it. The only problem is that the small number of people who do live in the area are likely to object.

The government has promised not to invest public money in building new stations and say they will ensure that energy companies pay the cost of decommissioning and of waste disposal. The most likely companies to be able and willing to do this are EDF and E.ON, neither of which are British. So the commitment to the private sector will result in the ownership of our energy infrastructure being moved overseas, but the upside is that it will be better run and more securely funded.

Others object to the large companies with government ties that are the only realistic players in the nuclear market, and delude themselves that it is possible for the country’s energy needs to be met entirely by micro generation. However I suspect that most of the latter group object not so much to the technology in question, but to the entire free market capitalist basis of our society. There is a psychological factor as well: people are usually more than necessarily frightened of things that they feel are outside their day to day experience, or that have very small risks associated with very large and visible hazards.

For example it is perfectly acceptable to have a fear of flying, but no one is frightened of crossing the road. Yet for every person who dies in a plane crash a thousand die in traffic accidents.

Unfortunately this is even truer of nuclear power than it is of aviation, as despite one or two ‘near misses’ there has only been one civilian nuclear accident that can be proven to have killed, and that was Chernobyl. Although Western reactor designs are much safer than old Soviet ones, and the latest ones are safer still, some tiny risk will always remain. The point has never been that nuclear power is completely safe, it’s that the problems caused will be so much less than the eventual consequences of climate change caused by CO2 emissions.

To me, this all seems like a sound case for building new nuclear power stations, but it’s one that I don’t think the government has put across to the public in a convincing manner. Having proposed a course of action based on a sound economic analysis, I think that the government should have encouraged a wide and clear public debate on it, trusting in the validity of its own arguments to see its bold policy through.

Instead we have gone through the motions of a consultation, but one that has not engaged with the public or defeated its opponents. By not fighting they have avoided immediate and outright defeat, but they have delayed implementation and by allowing the issues to be muddled they have ultimately undermined public confidence in themselves, in politics and in science.

The Conservatives have been even more cowardly by sitting on the sidelines and tacking on the predictable suggestion about not spending public money. The Liberal Democrat’s and the Scottish Nationalist’s opportunistic opposition to nuclear power shows that they know that they will never have to face the challenge of changing Britain to a low carbon economy.

I’m still waiting for the government to realise the courage of its convictions.

Tom Sadler is Materials Science Student.