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Is The Case For Nuclear Power Sound?

Posted on 7th July 2015

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This Telegraph story neatly highlights the contradictions in the case for nuclear power, and the hypocrisy in the UK government's attitude to renewable energy.

There is huge pressure at the international diplomatic level, from the scientific community and from ordinary citizens for governments to increase the proportion of our energy that comes from renewable and carbon-neutral sources. The world is in a frantic attempt to stave off the full scale of global warming, and all the economic and environmental side-effects of it. We are not changing the way we generate electricity and how we use resources (most especially how we deal with garbage) fast enough. Governments are all dragging their feet, and constantly demonstrating that they understand neither the urgency of, nor the science and technology behind, this transformation.

So let's take a look at the reactor project at Hinkley Point. While some of you may be anti-nuclear-power, most of you probably think that at least it has no carbon footprint. This is simply not true. The construction of nuclear power stations, which have to be built to very high standards for a planned operating life of 25 or more years, is very energy (carbon) intensive. Similarly for the construction of fuel rods (the centrifuges which purify nuclear fuel are very energy-hungry) and other consumables. Then all the spent fuel rods and irradiated material created during operation and during decommissioning have to be stored or reprocessed; some needs to be stored (and monitored) for thousands of years (and scientists and engineers are still trying to create a viable and proven method of safe long-term storage of nuclear waste). All this effort to build, operate and clean up nuclear power plants adds up to a huge energy/carbon cost, without even considering the radiation risks of such plants.

The new reactor at Hinkley Point is due to get loan guarantees (which will reduce the cost of borrowing to finance the project on the open market) from the UK government. In addition, EDF, the operators of Hinkley Point, are "guaranteed a price roughly double the current market price for every unit of electricity [they] generate". That is expensive electricity; the news of this coming at a time when the UK government is busily reducing subsidies for many other forms of renewable energy, most of which are smaller, per unit of energy, than what will be available to EDF. The need for such huge subsidies is the proof of the energy/carbon costs of nuclear power.

My view on all this would probably be a little less jaundiced if I was convinced that Hinkley Point formed a part of a well researched and analysed strategic plan for energy supply (and consumption) over the next half century. I feel that there is probably a place for nuclear power in such a plan, in part to provide security of energy supply, along with other big projects like tidal barrages, and increases in wind and solar generation. I would like to believe that such a plan exists, but actually I think the government's actions point more to the influence of industry lobbying.

Hey, people, this is the future of our planet, and the lives and health of our children and grandchildren that we are gambling with here! Time to grow a backbone, discover some moral fibre, and do the right thing!