Nuclear power may be the only way, says chief scientist

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The Independent Online

Britain may need one more generation of nuclear power stations in the fight against climate change, Sir David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser, says.

Britain may need one more generation of nuclear power stations in the fight against climate change, Sir David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser, says.

Sir David, who has sounded the alarm about global warming more loudly than anyone else in recent years, believes that new nuclear plants may be needed to keep Britain's faltering plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on course.

His comments, in an interview with The Independent, come three weeks after this newspaper reported that Tony Blair was drawing up plans to revive the nuclear option as a key element in the Government's drive to combat global warming.

They are the clearest on-the-record indications yet of high-level thinking about what will be an immensely controversial decision, likely to split the Cabinet, enrage the green movement and deeply concern many of the public, frightened about nuclear waste, nuclear accidents and potential nuclear terrorism.

Sir David, who said last year that the threat of climate change was worse than the terrorism risk, and publicly castigated the Bush administration in the United States for not signing the Kyoto climate treaty, does not see an unlimited nuclear future for Britain.

In years to come, he believes, renewable energy systems such as wind, wave and solar power, together with increased energy efficiency and the possible development of fusion power, will be sufficient to cut back the emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) from conventional coal and gas-fired power stations, which are believed to be raising temperatures around the globe. In the short term, he thinks, there may be no alternative to building new nuclear facilities - "one generation only", he stresses - if Britain is not to miss badly its more demanding global warming targets.

The reason is what he refers to as the "energy gap" - the period coming soon when Britain's existing range of atomic power stations, which provide us with nearly a quarter of our electricity without producing any significant amounts of CO2, start to be retired and drop out of the energy mix. Unless they are replaced, Sir David believes, the Government may not be able to meet its target of providing 20 per cent of our electricity from non-fossil-fuel sources by 2020.

To its considerable embarrassment, the Government has already admitted that it will miss, by a wide margin, its target of cutting CO2 emissions by a fifth by 2010. It has been further embarrassed by an increase in emissions in each of the past two years.

In the interview, Sir David, one of Tony Blair's most trusted advisers, said the energy gap was imminent and was the key issue. In a long discussion of the nuclear question, he said he well understood the fears of many of the public about nuclear waste, nuclear accidents and the possibilities of terrorists acquiring nuclear material. He said: "I've never been a great nuclear protagonist, because of concerns of waste and leakage, the cost of disposal, the decommissioning issue and the whole question of public acceptability." But he said the question of climate change and its impacts on human society - "the most serious problem we're faced with globally this century" - was so important that the nuclear option had to be re-examined, and that public perception of nuclear's dangers did not necessarily accord with reality.

He said fewer people had been killed in nuclear power generation than in other forms of energy production, and that modern nuclear stations being designed were inherently much safer than those involved in the notorious accidents at Three Mile Island in the US in 1979 and Chernobyl in Ukraine in 1986.

Furthermore, he indicated that if new nuclear power stations were built in Britain, they would be sited near existing nuclear sites, and it would be highly unlikely that fresh "greenfield" sites would be chosen.

The decision to go nuclear would not mean large amounts of Government money being spent he said, merely opening the option to the private sector. But it would be necessary to look at the fiscal regime very carefully, so that nuclear, with its high fixed costs, did not lose out in a competitive energy market.

Sir David stressed that going nuclear once more would not mean that Britain's commitment to the renewable energy systems of wind, wave and solar power would be in any way weakened. But the energy gap was a key issue, he said, as it was imminent.

He said: "That's why it's a live issue. I'd be ducking it if I wasn't to say that. And it may be that the conclusion would be reached that we need another generation of nuclear-fission power stations."

He went on: "Examining the situation now, because there's this imminent projected gap in nuclear energy on the grid, the whole question is whether this gap can be filled quickly enough with renewables. But if it can't, then I would imagine that one further generation of nuclear power stations would be all that would be required."

The Government is actively studying whether or not the gap can be filled in the review of its climate change programme, which is expected in the late summer. Sir David said he did not wish to prejudge the issue, but he warned: "The more ambitious targets that the Government has set are beginning to look quite difficult."

'Climate change is so important, we have to examine use of nuclear'

Sitting in his third-floor office in the new Department for Productivity, Energy and Industry (the Department of Trade and Industry until last weekend) in Victoria Street, central London, the Government's chief scientist spoke at length of his concerns about climate change, nuclear power, and in particular what he terms the energy gap.

Sir David King means what will happen to Britain's fight against global warming as, over the next 15 years or so, 11 out of Britain's current 12 nuclear power stations, which do not emit carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, come to the end of their working lives.

As they are shut down, the proportion of Britain's electricity produced by nuclear (CO2-free) power will drop from around a quarter now to about 4 per cent by 2020.

Can renewable energy systems, such as wind, wave and solar power, currently providing 3 per cent of Britain's electricity, provide enough CO2-free power in the meantime to fill the gap and enable the UK to meet its demanding climate-change targets? For if they cannot, Sir David says, a new generation of atomic power stations may be necessary.

The quietly spoken South African-born scientist, professor of chemistry at the University of Cambridge, is a practised Whitehall hand and was scrupulously careful not to give any direct public endorsement of his own to a new nuclear energy programme.

This is a decision strictly for ministers. But the stress he laid on the energy gap gave an insight into the Government's private thinking.

"I've always said in the past that, as we move to 2020, the proportion of nuclear energy going on to the grid, if there is no nuclear new-build, is going to drop from roughly 27 per cent to roughly 4 per cent," he said. "By 2020 we'll be left with Sizewell B [the nuclear plant in Suffolk].

"So the question in my mind and in many other people's mind is going to be, whether the renewables targets and the energy-efficiency targets will be sufficient to meet CO2 reductions, in the face of a falling percentage from nuclear power.

He went on: "That gap in energy is imminent, and that's why [nuclear] is a live issue, I'd be ducking it if I wasn't to say that. And it may be that the conclusion would be reached that we need another generation of nuclear-fission stations."

However, one generation would probably be sufficient, he said, and then a much-expanded renewables sector, and possibly nuclear-fusion power, would be able to take on the burden of the UK's carbon-free future.

"In other words, if we look into the long-term future, and project forward the work on renewables, and also project forward the work on nuclear-fusion power stations, I would imagine we would in the long term not need to continue with nuclear-fission power."

The other question was the public acceptability of any new nuclear build programme, he said. "I don't see any government being prepared to go down a route on an issue like this without taking the public with them, so I think that is a key issue." He said he could understand fears over waste and accidents.

"I'm not a great fan of nuclear," he said. "I can understand the public concerns, I can understand all the concerns about radioactive waste and so on. But I also feel that the climate change issue is so important that we really have to examine the potential use of nuclear."

Alternative energy sources


Wind energy is by far the most advanced form of renewable power in Britain. There are 101 wind farms in the United Kingdom with a total of 1,234 wind turbines, and a total capacity of 980 megawatts, or enough to supply more than half a million homes - about the same as a large coal or gas-fired power station. Currently, wind produces 0.8 per cent of UK electricity, or about a third of the total power from renewables, but that is set to leap as new projects come on stream. Wind energy has encountered hostility from some environmentalists who say the large turbines disfigure the landscape.


Solar power has immense potential which is not yet anything like fully exploited. It is based on the fact that every day the sun bathes the earth in an immense amount of energy, most of which is lost; it uses photovoltaic (PV) panels which are made of silicon and generate electricity whenever light falls upon them, whatever the weather. Britain's leading solar company, Solarcentury, says that "if we covered a small fraction of the Sahara desert with PV, we could generate all the world's electricity requirements".


Wave and tidal power are again potentially huge sources of energy but the least developed, certainly in Britain. A wave-powered generator christened Limpet is operating on rocks on the Scottish island of Islay but only produces about 500 kilowatts of energy. The Department for Productivity, Energy and Industry has commissioned the UK Renewable Energy Atlas which will spatially map the wave and tidal resource potential. But other countries such as France have already gone much further: since 1966, the big tidal power station at La Rance on the Normandy coast has been producing 240 megawatts of energy with its 24 turbines.