It’s OK to use the ‘N’ word

Many are too ready to dismiss nuclear power due to its tarnished image and their prejudices. But maybe it’s the best option we have, argues David Windle.

The other day I transgressed an unwritten law of the chattering classes and used both the ‘N’ and the ‘P’ words out loud and in public.

The conversation shuddered to a halt and was replaced by narrowed eyes and sharp intakes of breath. I had used the words ‘nuclear and power’ in polite company without sneering. I was now an outcast.

It wasn’t the fact that the people I was talking to weren’t pro-nuclear power that irked me – I’m not sure whether I am either. It was the way they refused even to consider that it could have any merits, the way they had become victims of ‘groupthink syndrome’.

Admission cost to Club Groupthink is high. All sense of objectivity should be left at the door along with all the normal checks and balances that make up the rational decision-making process. Listening to counter arguments or viewpoint reappraisal are forbidden.

In reality no amount of fashionable cynicism or pontificating about how things should be will make the problems disappear. When it comes to the long-term planning of critical infrastructures like power generation, some very tough decisions need to be made – soon.

We can’t go on relying on burning fossil fuels to create most of our electricity. Meeting our greenhouse gas emission reduction commitments under the Kyoto Protocol is a great step forward, but what then?

Renewable forms of energy such as wind, solar and wave power will play an increasingly important role in electricity generation. However, respected voices in the scientific and environmental communities are raising serious doubts that renewables alone will be able to make good the shortfall left by ageing nuclear stations being taken out of service, much less cope with projected increases in demand.

To the horror of many in the environmental lobby, James Lovelock, the scientist who created the Gaia theory that Earth is a self-regulating system, agrees with Sir David King, the government’s chief scientist, that global warming is a more serious threat than terrorism. Lovelock, a key figure in the ecology movement, pulled no punches: ‘We have no time to experiment with visionary energy sources; civilisation is in imminent danger and has to use nuclear, the one safe, available energy source, now or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted on our outraged planet.’

The government is coy about nuclear power. But it isn’t a party political issue. None of the main parties is actively suggesting building new reactors.

Tony Blair gave us the big picture when he said he ‘… could not rule out the possibility that at some point in the future new nuclear build might be necessary if we are to meet our carbon targets’. Labour’s stated goals are a 20 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2010 and a 60 per cent reduction by 2050.

However, in September environment secretary Margaret Beckett clarified the government’s medium-term thinking by claiming that the UK’s aim of reducing carbon could be achieved via renewable energy sources: ‘We certainly do not need extra nuclear power in anything like a 10 or 15-year cycle,’ she said.

In 15 years the UK’s nuclear-generating capacity will be around half its current level, with stations either shut down or due to be coming off-line. Time for some perspective: the British Nuclear Group (BNG) claims that, according to British Wind Energy Association’s figures, in April 2003 the UK had 1,009 wind turbines supplying approximately 1.47 billion kWh/year of electricity. To match the yearly output of the defunct Hinkley Point A nuclear power station, BNG said it would take approximately 2,060 wind turbines. ‘Ranged along a coastline, this would demand a line of turbines some 225 miles (362km) long…’

The solar power picture isn’t too sunny either. BNG said, ‘It would take 500,000 homes, each with a 10m2 solar panel installed into conveniently south-facing roofs, to match the power output of Hinkley Point A. And, of course, bright sunshine. Allowing for the vagaries of our weather, it would actually take 3.3 million homes…’

It takes around 10 years of planning consultations, construction and commissioning before a nuclear power station is ready to supply electricity to the grid.

So even if the go-ahead for a multi-station building plan was given immediately, none could be ready for a more than a decade.

As for the critical question of nuclear waste management, things have been moving on. AMEC, the company that was heavily involved in the site clearance at Ground Zero and rebuilt the Pentagon, believes its GeoMelt technique could transform the issue.

It claims the process, which mixes waste with other materials to form a ‘glass-like material 10 times stronger than concrete’, will enable waste to be stored safely for 200,000 years – longer than the radioactivity. The US government is building a $53m (£30m) pilot plant at the US nuclear weapons site in Hanford, Washington, and here British Nuclear Fuels and the DTI are also looking into the process.

It’s time to put our prejudices and groupthink aside and think the unthinkable: perhaps nuclear power needs to be a part of our future.Let’s not forget, we need our planet more than it needs us.

David Windle is a freelance technology and aerospace writer.