Very careful analysis is still needed before going with the nuclear option. By making this choice we could inadvertently waste time and money and therefore not achieve what we could do by pursuing other options – for example, through energy efficiency, cleaner cars and renewable power.
The first issue is the scope of what nuclear can do. Today, nuclear provides only electricity and thus could do little (in the short-term at least) to reduce emissions from other sectors such as heating and transport, which are mainly powered, respectively, by gas and oil. Because of this constraint even a doubling of British nuclear capacity would reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by just 8 per cent. This is, of course, a significant proportion but must be weighed against what we might achieve by spending the same effort and money on truly sustainable options.
Then there is the wider economic picture. New nuclear build would be based on imported technology, from France probably. While this might be good for French jobs and industry, we could gain more economic and employment benefits for the UK through developing renewable energy sources – such as offshore wind, tidal and wave power. Using the engineering capacity in our declining North Sea oil and gas, and shipbuilding industries to do this would improve both energy security and create jobs. More jobs could be also created in upgrading our grossly inefficient housing and a major high-speed rail programme.
No one seriously expects nuclear power stations to be built without some official subsidies (none ever have been), so we must ask if public funds will achieve the best impact through this route. One US study found that a dollar invested in energy efficiency achieves seven times more carbon reduction than a dollar spent on nuclear.
Getting renewables going alongside more efficient energy use, cleaner cars, lower traffic levels, micro-power systems for buildings and making fossil generation more efficient and cleaner is a better package. Alongside this approach we need a new cultural dimension in energy policy whereby there is popular acceptance of the need to reduce overall consumption.
Tony Juniper is a former director of Friends of the Earth. He is the Green Party general election candidate for Cambridge.
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