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

Thursday 13 July 2006 00:00 BST

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

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