Case 'never stronger' for nuclear reactors

Despite the nuclear crisis in Japan, the case for a new generation of reactors in the UK has never been stronger, the Government's former chief scientist said today.

Professor Sir David King made his comments as it emerged radioactive water was leaking from the tsunami-hit Fukushima plant in Japan and plutonium has seeped into the soil at the site, which has suffered explosions, fires and radiation leaks.

He said: "Despite the terrible events in Japan, the economic, safety and carbon case for a new build programme in the UK has never been stronger."

According to a report out today from the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment of which Sir David is the director, recycling used nuclear fuels to generate more power could offset the costs of cleaning up the legacy of the UK's ageing nuclear power plants.

There could be a £10 billion opportunity in reprocessing used fuels as part of a "renaissance" in nuclear power in the UK.

But the report warned that the industry in the UK was not set up for new nuclear build - and a "holistic" approach was needed which dealt with the legacy of old power plants alongside a new generation of nuclear reactors.

Sir David said: "Currently the UK has a window of opportunity to deal with its nuclear material and spent fuel management and to maximise the value of its existing assets.

"The renaissance in new nuclear build creates an advantageous way of using these legacy materials as fuel for new nuclear power plants."

The study was due to be launched two weeks ago, but was postponed after the crisis at the tsunami-hit Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan emerged - which raised questions over the future of nuclear power in the UK.

The UK has 19 nuclear reactors, which generate around 18% of the country's electricity.

Ministers have said that a new generation of plants are needed as part of the energy mix to cut carbon and ensure energy security in the future.

Last year, the Government gave the green light to eight sites for new nuclear power plants.

And earlier this year, it launched a consultation into what to do with plutonium currently stored at Sellafield and Dounreay, including the possibility of recycling it into new fuel.

According to the report out today, the costs of recycling nuclear materials would be offset to an extent by the value of the new fuels produced, but the costs of disposing of used nuclear fuel would fall to the Government, and therefore the taxpayer.

There is "no cheap, do nothing option", the report warns, as even continued storage of the fuels has costs.

The reuse of materials, and the infrastructure needed for doing so, could increase energy security by generating electricity from existing stocks, save carbon by reducing mining for uranium, increase employment and improve nuclear security, the report said.

Responding to the report, Neil Bentley, deputy director-general of business group the CBI, said: "The terrible events in Japan are a horrific reminder of why safety has to be the number one concern when it comes to nuclear energy.

"At the same time, nuclear has to remain a solution to fulfilling our objectives to secure a future low-carbon, affordable energy mix for the UK.

"The UK's nuclear legacy must be addressed in a safe, cost-effective manner and this report is an important step towards new nuclear being an even more secure low-carbon source of energy, in a world of rising uranium prices."

But Greenpeace's chief scientist, Dr Doug Parr, said: "By reprocessing nuclear waste and turning it into fuel, you create even more nuclear waste than you would otherwise have to deal with anyway.

"Reprocessing would also lead to increased multibillion-pound taxpayer handouts to the nuclear industry, and that's before you consider what it would mean for our ability to constrain nuclear weapons proliferation around the world.

"A recent study by McKinsey and Imperial College showed that it's completely possible for more than 80% of Europe's power to come from clean, renewables sources.

"It simply isn't necessary to take on the risks inherent with using plutonium.

"If ministers choose to meet our energy needs through efficiency and renewable resources, it would spark a clean tech jobs boom which would help boost our economy and protect our environment."