David King: Why we have no alternative to nuclear power

If there were other sources of low carbon energy I would be in favour, but there aren't

Share

Climate change is the greatest problem our civilisation has had to face. It requires a collective global response: a massive challenge for our populations, businesses and politicians. Our greenhouse gas emissions have multiple causes, and our response will require a multiplicity of approaches. We need every tool in the bag, and some new tools too.

The UK government committed itself, in the 2003 Energy White Paper, to a 60 per cent reduction in emissions, while keeping energy costs competitive and securing supplies. Today, we in the UK are emitting about 150 million tonnes of carbon per annum. We are committed, therefore, to reducing that to 60 million tonnes a year by 2050. Each and every sector will need to be squeezed hard if we are going to achieve that. Each will be required to contribute a growing "wedge" of carbon reductions over the next 50 years.

These wedges have to include each of the following: energy-efficiency gains; an ambitious programme of energy renewables; decarbonising the transport sector; a programme to reverse the decline of nuclear energy on the grid; distributed energy generation with combined heat and power; energy microgeneration, making much of the built environment independent of the national grid; and carbon capture and storage. In effect, this has been set out in the Energy Review published this week.

With each of these wedges pursued to optimal outcomes, we can manage that 60 per cent reduction within a healthy, growing economy. If any wedge can be developed faster, even bigger reductions may be achieved, taking us more quickly to our goal of a zero-net carbon economy.

Considerably more resources will be put into non-nuclear research over the next 10 years, spurred on by two important developments. Firstly, we are working with the chief executives of BP, E.ON UK, EDF and Shell to develop a prospectus for a new Institute for Energy Technologies, a public-private partnership which will invest £1bn into energy research over 10 years. Secondly, BP has announced the formation of a new BP Bioenergy Institute, which will invest £300m over 10 years into biofuels research. These and other efforts will provide the means for achieving many of our goals.

It is in this context that I believe we must take steps now to ensure the conditions exist for the UK's current nuclear energy capacity to be replaced. In the absence of such action, the UK looks set to become increasingly dependent on carbon dioxide emitting gas, sourced increasingly from Russia, Africa and the Middle East.

Timescales are a key factor. It takes much longer to plan, get approval for and build a nuclear plant than it does for other generation options. Each year we delay any new nuclear build means we may commit to perhaps an additional 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide being emitted by 2050, assuming that gas fills the gap as nuclear capacity declines. The position could be worse if gas prices remain high and coal becomes more competitive.

All energy options have advantages and drawbacks. For nuclear, the waste issueneeds to be addressed. However, a modern plant built today is considerably more efficient and safe, designed for ease of decommissioning, and will produce less waste than previous designs; it is estimated that a fleet of 10 new reactors would over 40 years add no more than 10 per cent to the total volume of UK waste, a long-term disposal solution for which will need to be identified irrespective of decisions on new build. The independent Committee on Radioactive Waste Management is tackling this issue, and is due to report shortly. For new plants, the costs of waste disposal and decommissioning would be borne by the private sector investors, not government or tax payers, and would represent no more than 3 per cent of costs overall.

Let me make it clear, if there were other sources of low carbon energy that could replace our generation of nuclear, while ensuring security of supply and competitive prices, I would be in favour of them, but there aren't. Nuclear power is an important source of low carbon electricity in the UK, and that is why the Government has said nuclear power must be an important option in meeting our energy goals.

This could be the last generation of new nuclear fission power plants in the UK. In 35 years, the Iter project may well yield the availability of commercial fusion power plants, with zero radioactive waste implications. But, for now, we must face the realities as they exist today. Through this comprehensive range of actions to decarbonise our economy, giving us a strong hand in leading international negotiations on emissions reductions, we can begin to ensure a more manageable situation for future generations to inherit.

The writer is the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C#.NET Developer

£300 - £350 per day: Harrington Starr: C#.NET Developer C#, WPF,BLL,MVVM, SOA...

Service Delivery Manager - Derivatives, Support,

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Delivery Manager - (Derivatives, Support...

Technical Account Manager - Java, FIX Protocol, FIX 5.0, C++

£30000 - £55000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Technical Account Manager - Java,...

WPF .NET Developer

£300 - £350 per day: Harrington Starr: WPF Analyst Programmer NET, WPF, C#, M...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The daily catch-up: heatwave update; duck tape and market socialism

John Rentoul
David Cameron's 'compassionate conservatism' is now lying on its back  

Tory modernisation has failed under David Cameron

Michael Dugher
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform