This issue the Big Green Debate goes nuclear, quite literally in fact. Nuclear power is often a contentious one for environmentalists, but not all greenies are opposed. Some see it as far too dangerous, while others argue it could be a solution to our low carbon energy problem. For this debate we’ve brought out the big hitters, with our Campaign Co-ordinators Robert Pass and Roxanne Green taking the floor. Robert Pass will be making the case for nuclear power whilst Roxanne Green will be arguing against.
By 2050 electricity demand is set to double as Britain’s population soars to 80 million and much of our transport and heating will have switched to the electricity grid. How can we afford to rule out low-carbon nuclear power?
75% of the UK’s electricity is currently produced by burning fossil fuels. Around 16% of Britain’s electricity supply is provided by nuclear power. Replacing all of our fossil fuel usage with renewable energy will be hard enough. Replacing fossil fuels and nuclear power with renewables is, I believe, wildly unrealistic.
Renewables have a low power density, which means you need a lot of them covering a large area. A European/North African super-grid of renewables is required, but the cost would be huge and the energy security implications are worrying. It’s also worth remembering that all renewables involve the mining, transporting and processing of rare earth minerals. China currently controls 95% of the world’s production of rare earth minerals.
So called ‘fourth generation’ nuclear power will be massively more efficient than our existing nuclear power stations. Instead of burning just 1% of the uranium, they burn 99% of the uranium. Not only would this produce a tiny fraction of the waste, but it would mean you could re-use the nuclear waste from today’s reactors. This would mean there would be enough existing nuclear fuel to power the country for centuries. It could even be used to deal with the waste from nuclear weapons, turning the problem of nuclear waste into a solution to our carbon energy crisis.
Before Fukushima, nuclear power saved around a quarter of a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year in Japan, equivalent to just under half the UK’s emissions. Point Carbon predict that Germany’s plan to shut down its nuclear power plants will increase their carbon dioxide emissions during the coming decade by around half a billion tons.
We have an almighty fight on our hands to wean ourselves off fossil fuels if we are to avoid runaway global warming. Yes, nuclear is expensive, and not without its safety fears, but it’s a proven low-carbon technology. It would be foolish to dismiss it without considering the consequences of our idealism.
Nuclear power is expensive; it has been heavily dependent on government subsidies totalling billions of pounds for decades. If renewable energy had had the money poured into it that nuclear has, we would be getting the same amount of energy from renewables as we do from nuclear. When nuclear power stations can no longer be used it costs a lot to shut them down safely, because nuclear power produces waste that is toxic and stays toxic for tens of thousands of years, so it costs a fortune to store. Therefore, producing nuclear waste means getting locked into a prohibitively expensive contract for storage for thousands of years.
Nuclear power is not a clean option. It creates huge amounts of emissions that contribute to climate change; the mining, transporting and processing of uranium uses a lot of energy. It is dangerous too – although there are thorough safety procedures at nuclear power stations, all processes get missed some of the time. At British nuclear power stations between 2001 and 2008 there were 1,767 safety breaches. Human error and corner cutting can never be entirely eliminated, and the potential ramifications of a serious safety breach mean that, however unlikely, it is simply not worth the risk.
The real issue that needs to be addressed in energy policy is consumption. We use and waste too much energy, on our homes, in industry, on getting around. We currently rely on fossil fuels to power our inefficient habits, and this is destroying the planet. These consumption levels cannot continue; there is no way we can continue to waste this much energy; it’s a remarkable, precious commodity and it needs to be used responsibly.
We are at a critical point in energy policy; nuclear power cannot be adapted quickly enough to respond to urgent demands in the climate and developments in technology. If we invest in nuclear now we will be burdened with it in the long term. There is all sorts of talk about new nuclear technologies but none have yet been proved satisfactorily, and because it is so potentially harmful, testing must be extensive and rigorous. We do not have time to wait. Renewable energy is ready to go, the technology works, we just need some investment and conviction from our parliamentary representatives.