Blair advisor gives glowing endorsement for nuclear future

The Government's soon to be announced review of energy policy looks increasingly likely to be a mere formality towards announcing the start of a major nuclear power programme, after a week of statements in favour of the controversial energy choice.

With the Prime Minister, the CBI and the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor all seemingly supporting a return to nuclear generation, the outcome of any review would seem a dead cert.

Blair has yet to officially give his backing to such a move, but recent comments, such as to the Commons liaison committee this week, where he said that “the facts have changed over the last couple of years”, and ones to the European Parliament last month (see related story) certainly suggest he backs such a move.

He already has the backing of his Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir David King, who was an advocate of nuclear energy in the 2003 energy review and who told members of the environmental audit committee last week that the new generation of nuclear power stations are much safer and produce less waste per unit of energy produced.

He highlighted the fact that by 2020 Sizewell B will be the only operating nuclear power station in the country, producing 4% of the country’s energy needs compared to nuclear’s current contribution of 21%.

“If we do not re-commission power stations as the current old stock de-commissions, we will have an energy gap in terms of zero-carbon producing power stations,” he said.

More pressure was brought to bear on the decision making from the CBI this week, who said that Government needed to make a decision “within a year” on whether to back nuclear power.

In a research paper the business lobbyists say that that the 10-year lead time for nuclear build means that Government should act quickly. It calls on the Government to commission immediately a definitive study on the economics of nuclear power relative to other sources, and to finalise swiftly its strategy for the disposal of existing and future nuclear waste.

Pre-empting the outcome of any debate, the CBI says: “To ensure any positive decision on nuclear can then be delivered quickly, [the paper] also calls for the ‘pre-licensing’ of reactor designs, and for the scope of public planning enquiries to be limited to ‘site-specific’ issues.”

“A decision on the future of nuclear power has been allowed to drift too long. Potential investors and the British public both deserve certainty,” Sir Digby Jones, CBI Director General said. “Nuclear’s position as a reliable, low-carbon energy source is without doubt, but understandable concerns exist about costs and waste. The Prime Minister has rightly promised a comprehensive debate on the future of nuclear power. The Government must now deliver positive leadership to increase public awareness and ensure public ownership of the outcome.”

The push for a nuclear revival has angered the environmental community. Tony Juniper, Friends of the Earth director said nuclear power was unnecessary, unsafe and uneconomic.

“Nuclear power is not the answer to tackling climate change. It is expensive and leaves a legacy of deadly nuclear waste that remains dangerous for tens of thousands of years. UK tax-payers are already committed to a bill of more than £50 billion to clean up the nuclear mess we have already created. Adding to that cost would be financial madness, and divert resources that would be better spent on energy efficiency and renewables.”

He added that calls by the CBI for a quick decision based on the conditions expected this winter were based on false premises as nuclear could not be expected to make any difference for at least 15 years.

“CBI scaremongering may be diverting public debate in the short-term, but it is losing the organisation credibility,” he said.

Greenpeace have released a statement attacking the very basis of the environmental-justification that the nuclear lobby uses – namely that nuclear generation produces no CO2 emissions.

“While it’s true that most nuclear reactors do not emit carbon (although British nuclear plants actually do release CO2 gas because it is used for cooling), they are a small part of a nuclear fuel chain which most certainly does. The preparation of uranium for the reactor involves a host of CO2 -emitting processes, including: mining and milling the ore; fuel enrichment and fuel-rod fabrication. Then there’s the construction of the power station itself. At the other end there’s reactor decommissioning and the treatment, storage, transport and disposal of nuclear waste. All of this involves CO2 emissions, which in some areas – such as fuel enrichment – are significant,” the group states.

Once this life-cycle is taken into account, the group says, claims of being a ‘carbon-free’ alternative don’t stack up.

“The most recent studies indicate that, for the richest uranium ores, CO2 emissions across the nuclear cycle are about 33% that of fossil-fuel plants. So far so good – but the fact is that very little uranium ore is of sufficient quality to produce such a result. Poor grades of ore have a content of less than 0.02% uranium-235 (this is the uranium isotope which is necessary to sustain the chain reaction in fuel in a nuclear power plant). As the high grade ores are used up, the industry will become increasingly dependent on lower grade ores – which will mean using more and more energy to ‘enrich’ the level of uranium-235 in the fuel to a level where it can be used in a reactor,” Greenpeace says.

According to Greenpeace’ estimates, known uranium reserves will last for roughly 50 years at present consumption rates. However, the 438 plants operating world-wide produce only 16% of global requirements. If the world’s entire electricity needs were to be met by nuclear, then this could be used up within three to four years.

“Some estimates predict that using the remaining poorer ores in nuclear reactors could produce more CO2 emissions than burning fossil fuels directly,” Greenpeace says.

Prof Michael Grubb, chief economist for the Carbon Trust, sounded like the only voice in officialdom not gunning for nuclear when he spoke about the need for transparency in the review at this week’s Environment Agency conference.

He said a bias in the review was unacceptable, and probably unhelpful as the financiers in the City of London would not back the Government’s preferred option unless the figures stacked up.

The most effective way to provide a robust, low carbon energy mix for the UK would be simply to lay all the facts, and true costs, on the table and let the free market decide, he said.

The outcomes of the review are due to be released in July next year. Alan Johnson, Trade and Industry Secretary, insists that the Government is neutral and unbiased toward nuclear and that the Prime Minister’s mind is not yet made up.

However, with gas and oil prices increasing and North Sea supplies rapidly running out, the nuclear debate is likely to remain active for some time to come.

David Hopkins

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