Tuesday, October 18, 2005

BBC News Covers U.K. Nuclear Power Debate

With all but one of the United Kingdom's power stations set to close by 2023, and with Prime Minister Tony Blair calling for an "assessment of all options, including civil nuclear power," BBC News has taken up the issue.

First, BBC offers its own analysis:

Nuclear power looks as if it should be the answer to all our energy conundrums, and perhaps even to climate change. It provides a steady stream of energy, and does not depend on hydrocarbon supplies from unstable regimes. It is the nearest thing we have to a non-polluting energy source, apart from natural renewables. But it still engenders massive distrust, so much that many people say it can never be part of the way to avoid a disastrously warming world.
The report goes on to say, "Most of us worry far more about something that we see as very unlikely but grotesquely horrible than we do about what we perceive as far likelier but much more mundane." In other words, "We are understandably terrified of nuclear meltdown, but far fewer of us yet fear the prospect of planetary overheating as we should." The math is simple:
The UK's nuclear power stations produce about 20% of the country's electricity, and by 2023 all are due to have closed. But by 2030 it is estimated world CO2 emissions will be 62% higher than today, as global demand for energy grows.
As the only non-greenhouse gas-emitting energy source, nuclear energy should be part of the U.K. energy mix. That's what Sir David Wallace, vice president of the Royal Society and a nuke supporter, tells skeptic Tom Burke, a visiting professor at Imperial College London, in an e-mail debate printed on the BBC Web site.

In fact, Wallace stresses that nuclear should be only a part of the energy mix:
The debate about where we get our energy from must not be polarised, as it so often is, as a trade-off between renewable sources of energy and nuclear power.

If we are to ensure that we are cutting our emissions of greenhouse gases drastically, while at the same time ensuring that there is security of supply, then we must develop a policy of diversity based on evidence and not ideology.

In the short to medium term it is difficult to see how we can meet our energy needs without the help of nuclear power - a relatively "climate friendly" source of energy.

Nuclear currently provides us with about a quarter of our electricity in the UK. But with almost all nuclear power stations reaching the end of their lives in the next 20 years it is not clear how we will make up this shortfall.

Unfortunately - and wishful thinking will not make it otherwise - this gap is unlikely to be filled by renewable sources of energy such as wind, wave, solar or the burning of "energy crops".

The UK's target of generating 10% of our electricity from renewable sources by 2010 is laudable but even this target looks ambitious.

In 2002, for example, renewables accounted for just 3% of electricity. Even if we achieve the full 10% we will be more reliant on fossil fuels in 2010 than we are today, if we allow nuclear power stations to close as scheduled.

As part of a comprehensive energy strategy, we should be striving energetically to meet and go beyond these targets for renewable energy.

There is clearly security in diversity of supply and in the long term we would expect renewables to be able to supply a much larger proportion of our energy needs. And the UK is in a particularly good position to exploit wave and tidal power.
Wallace goes on to suggest the government impose a carbon tax to "encourage the development of carbon free technologies - including nuclear and renewable power - and a move away from carbon based fuels in the overall energy supply, as well as promoting energy efficiency measures."

In response, dismisses nuclear power in Britain as "irrelevant," primarily because nuclear plant construction is such a lengthy process. Instead, he proposes using advanced clean-coal technologies. What Burke fails to acknowledge is that such technologies are also a long way off.

In the second round of e-mails, Wallace points out that capture technology has yet to be tested on a large scale, sequestration will incur high costs, a method of safe storage is still "problematic," a coal mining is a physically dangerous activity. "All of this means for me that there are no simple solutions, no silver bullets," Wallace says. "Every option will have to be brought into play whenever it can contribute to tackling the problem. ... We need technologies to be ruled in at this point, not ruled out, and action taken now."

UPDATE: The Institute of Physics is weighing in on the energy issue, saying in a new report that the U.K. "lacks the necessary skills to achieve the government’s target of producing 10 percent of our electricity from renewable energy sources by 2010" calling for further research into renewables.

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