Zac Goldsmith: Don't delete nukes from the menu

The terror concerns are nothing compared with the climate challenge

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Before climate change forced its way on to the mainstream political agenda, nuclear energy was in decline - hounded by environmentalists and rejected by the City. Then, all of a sudden it was presented as a solution to the greatest threat we face, and the nuclear share price began to soar.

According to supporters, nuclear is reliable, sustainable, indigenous, immediately available and, most importantly, carbon neutral. It is the answer therefore not only to the looming energy crisis, but to climate change itself. Not surprisingly, environmentalists have been under pressure to put aside their traditional hostility. The threat of climate change, even according to conservative predictions, outweighs the worst of nuclear power. So if it were genuinely the case that nuclear power represents a solution to climate change, there's no question we'd have to embrace it.

We'd do so reluctantly though; nuclear comes with baggage. In Britain alone, we will need to find around £70bn just to deal with existing nuclear waste. And although we haven't yet calculated the costs of securing nuclear sites in an era when terrorists are willing to die for their causes, we know they are considerable, not least because we are starting from scratch. Only a few years ago two Greenpeace activists dressed as missiles and carrying suitcase "bombs" managed to gain access to Sizewell B in southern England. Had they been real terrorists, the consequences would not bear thinking about.

Nevertheless, these concerns pale next to the challenge we face if even the most conservative climate change predictions are accurate. But is nuclear really an answer to climate change? Is it even an answer to the emerging energy crisis? It's hard to know exactly how much uranium exists, but some of the world's best-known commodity traders are betting on a huge price rise on the back of dwindling reserves. Some analysts believe uranium supplies will deplete on roughly the same timescale as oil and gas. And although a number of nuclear supporters, like the Gaia theorist James Lovelock, have pointed out that we have plenty of uranium in our own granite reserves in the UK, the levels are so low that to extract it would require more energy than we would salvage from the process.

Nor is nuclear power immediately available. Only last week the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee warned that new nuclear power plants would take so long to build that Britain could face blackouts if we pursue the nuclear route. That's not the case with energy efficiency, which can happen today. Nor is it the case with the combined heat and power (CHP) systems that already flourish in parts of Britain and Europe, and which use hydrogen to generate heat and light in a way that is unarguably cheaper, cleaner and safer. It's not surprising that both the Environmental Audit Committee and the government's own advisers in the Sustainable Development Commission have strongly recommended investment in alternatives.

Despite the baggage, according to a number of recent opinion polls most people would accept a nuclear revival if it would improve our chances of tackling climate change. But would it? The truth, as the Sustainable Development Commission discovered following its own investigations, is that the contribution of nuclear to emissions reductions has been exaggerated. Even if we replaced existing nuclear reactors and doubled their number, we'd see a mere eight per cent reduction in carbon emissions - and not until 2035. It's a gain, but a minuscule one. And contrary to claims, nuclear isn't carbon neutral; every stage of the nuclear cycle, other than fission itself, produces carbon dioxide.

Compare the ambiguities of nuclear with the alternatives. An energy efficiency programme, for instance, could save us twice the energy currently generated by nuclear at a fraction of the cost. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, a respected environmental think tank, a pound invested in energy efficiency buys seven times more "solution" than a pound invested in nuclear. To put it in context, if every lightbulb in the UK was exchanged with an energy efficient model, we'd save the power equivalent of nearly two advanced gas-cooled reactors. Much of this has already been proven by companies such as Bayer, BT, DuPont and Norske Canada for instance, which have reduced their greenhouse gas emissions by at least 60 per cent since 1990 with total gross savings of $4bn (£2.2bn).

So, too, have any number of alternative energy sources been established and proven. Solar, wave, wind, and so on all have roles to play. And CHP is emerging as a potential frontrunner. If the council in Woking has reduced emissions by more than 75 per cent, that is at least partly thanks to a highly effective CHP system which it brought in last year. Because these systems deliver heat and power, they require significantly fewer inputs. And because they are sited close to where the energy they generate will be used, they are less wasteful. Up to two-thirds of the energy generated by the current long-distance energy infrastructure is lost before it reaches its destination.

In terms of value for money, it's hard to argue the case for nuclear over, for instance, energy efficiency. And confronted by the scale of the challenge we face in climate change, nuclear is at best a feeble solution. But even if that were not the case, even if nuclear represented a genuine solution to climate change, Britain is nevertheless a single nation, and the problem is unavoidably global. So whatever solution we adopt here should be as exportable as possible. Britain after all cannot be seen to be adopting as its answer to climate change a technology that it would justifiably want to restrict in a great many developing nations, where expertise may be lacking, where the risks of accidents would be greater, or where proliferation remains a concern.

It's impossible responsibly to delete nuclear from the energy menu. It may need to be considered. But that will only be the case in the event of failure by our politicians to exploit the alternatives.

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