07 March, 2006

Look! Important people agree with me!

The BBC reports that the Centre for Sustainable Development - the Government’s own independent watchdog – has reported that, as I have been arguing, nuclear power is not the magic bullet for our energy woes.

From the SDC press release:

Based on eight new research papers (which you can read for yourself here), the SDC report gives a balanced examination of the pros and cons of nuclear power. Its research recognizes that nuclear is a low carbon technology, with an impressive safety record in the UK. Nuclear could generate large quantities of electricity, contribute to stabilising CO2 emissions and add to the diversity of the UK’s energy supply.

However, the research establishes that even if the UK’s existing nuclear capacity was doubled, it would only give an 8% cut on CO2 emissions by 2035 (and nothing before 2010). This must be set against the risks.

The report identifies five major disadvantages to nuclear power:

  1. Long-term waste – no long term solutions are yet available, let alone acceptable to the general public; it is impossible to guarantee safety over the long- term disposal of waste.

  2. Cost – the economics of nuclear new-build are highly uncertain. There is little, if any, justification for public subsidy, but if estimated costs escalate, there’s a clear risk that the taxpayer will be have to pick up the tab.

  3. Inflexibility – nuclear would lock the UK into a centralised distribution system for the next 50 years, at exactly the time when opportunities for microgeneration and local distribution network are stronger than ever.

  4. Undermining energy efficiency – a new nuclear programme would give out the wrong signal to consumers and businesses, implying that a major technological fix is all that’s required, weakening the urgent action needed on energy efficiency.

  5. International security – if the UK brings forward a new nuclear power programme, we cannot deny other countries the same technology (under the terms of the Framework Convention on Climate Change). With lower safety standards, they run higher risks of accidents, radiation exposure, proliferation and terrorist attacks.

On balance, the SDC finds that these problems outweigh the advantages of nuclear. However, the SDC does not rule out further research into new nuclear technologies and pursuing answers to the waste problem, as future technological developments may justify a re-examination of the issue.

The chairman of the SDC, Jonathon Porritt, had some strong words to accompany the report:

“Instead of hurtling along to a pre-judged conclusion (which many fear the Government is intent on doing), we must look to the evidence. There’s little point in denying that nuclear power has benefits, but in our view, these are outweighed by serious disadvantages. The Government is going to have to stop looking for an easy fix to our climate change and energy crises – there simply isn’t one.”

Of course, this is only one of many commissions and think-tanks likely to weigh into this debate in the coming months – and it’s not exactly a huge shock that a body concerned with sustainable development views nuclear energy with a somewhat sceptical eye. But it’s cheering to find my concerns being advocated by people the Government can less easily ignore. Which isn’t to say that they won’t, of course…

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