Nuclear bombshell only confuses the issue

‘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.’

This is the verdict on nuclear power from the Sustainable Development Commission, a government think-tank, in its new report on the energy supply issue.

Given the above statement, you could be forgiven for believing that the SDC had endorsed nuclear as a key technology for meeting the UK’s future energy needs. A cautious endorsement no doubt, and one hedged around with caveats concerning safety, security and cost — and quite rightly so. But an endorsement nonetheless.

Wrong. The SDC politely nodded its head to nuclear, then gave it a well-aimed kick in the you-know-whats. No, it concluded, a new generation of nuclear stations is not the answer to the UK’s security of energy supply, or to tackling climate change.

Its report, which is impressive in breadth and depth, unearthed a list of ‘major disadvantages’ to nuclear energy. Let’s look at a few.

First, the lack of a solution to long-term waste. A good point. Nobody in favour of nuclear energy disagrees that all bets are off until an acceptable solution to the waste issue can be found. Research in this area, however, suggests that one will be found, and relatively soon, underpinned by a deep storage waste repository.

Security. Nuclear power stations would be vulnerable to terrorist attacks. True. So make them impregnable fortresses, surround them with troops, let them bristle with the latest defence technology. We already do this with military bases.

The Commission’s final objection is perhaps the most interesting. A new nuclear programme would send the wrong signal, one that promises a quick fix which would undermine the wider drive towards energy efficiency.

Reading between the lines, the concern seems to be that nuclear energy, with its promise of affordable, abundant power, might make us all complacent, less likely to insulate our lofts or set the central heating to go off an hour earlier. It could also skew the market against renewables, making the economic case for alternative energy sources more problematic.

But energy efficiency should be its own virtue and its own reward. The powerful arguments in its favour should surely be able to survive the availability of an efficient, reliable energy source. By the same token, renewables will have to fight their corner in the harsh arena of economics as well as relying on their compelling case as greener sources of energy.

The Engineer backs renewables as a key component of a low-carbon, secure energy mix. But consider this. Just days before the SDC’s report was released, the government blocked development of a windfarm in Whinash, near the Lake District, following ferocious lobbying by campaigners who said it would blight the landscape. This was hailed as a victory by anti-windfarm activists up and down the land. So no windfarm, says the government, no nuclear energy, says the SDC.

Take a look at your ballooning gas and electricity bill, and ask yourself whether this is a national crisis in the making. Then start hoping the government can see the wood for the trees, whatever the views of the SDC.

Andrew Lee, editor