Nuclear stopgap could prove the best reaction

A head of steam seems to be building up behind efforts to persuade the government to reverse its opposition to building new nuclear generating capacity in the UK.

A head of steam, to use an inappropriate metaphor, seems to be building up behind efforts to persuade the government to reverse its opposition to building new nuclear generating capacity in the UK.

BNFL hopes it can swing the argument in the government’s energy policy review by seeking to get licensed a new type of reactor, which it believes would be much simpler to build and operate than the Sizewell type pressurised water reactor.

The government is certainly on the horns of a dilemma. Its chances of meeting its climate change policy targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions look slim, with Magnox reactors due to be retired and renewables growing only slowly. In these circumstances the idea of new nuclear capacity is likely to look like a tempting solution.

But before the idea of nuclear power as a panacea once again gains too much currency, it is worth reflecting on two points.

Nuclear energy has never been cost-effective, having depended on government subsidy for development. Nor is it an environmentally benign technology. Society may have been able to avoid facing up to the issue of what to do about nuclear waste for half a century, but it cannot do so forever.

However, as the evidence that global warming is indeed happening continues to mount (despite what President Bush might think), it is possible to argue that addressing climate change is a more pressing concern than the waste issue.

A reasonable person might well accept that there is a case for new nuclear capacity, under duress and as a short-term fix to get out of the present problem – if the description ‘short-term’ can be applied to the likely timescale for getting any new reactor through the planning system and then built.

But that is all. In the long term, energy policy needs to focus firmly on other solutions: energy efficiency measures, CHP and renewables such as solar and wave power.

If a tenth of the engineering expertise that has been applied to nuclear power were brought to bear on these alternatives, we might see some progress.

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