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Last Updated: Monday, 17 October 2005, 08:26 GMT 09:26 UK
Analysis: Is nuclear power the answer?
With Prime Minister Tony Blair calling for an "open-minded" debate on the future of nuclear power in the UK, the BBC's Alex Kirby explores the pros and cons of atomic energy.

Sizewell B
Sizewell B, the UK's newest reactor, was built in the 1980s
Nuclear power looks as if it should be the answer to all our energy conundrums, and perhaps even to climate change.

It provides a steady stream of energy, and does not depend on hydrocarbon supplies from unstable regimes.

It is the nearest thing we have to a non-polluting energy source, apart from natural renewables.

But it still engenders massive distrust, so much that many people say it can never be part of the way to avoid a disastrously warming world.

Nuclear energy has always had its proponents, their ranks swollen now by people who dislike the technology but believe it may be essential.

They point out that a reactor emits virtually no carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas released from human activities (though of course building the power station produces a lot of CO2).

UK'S ENERGY PRESSURES
Supplies of cheap domestic gas are running low
Oil and gas prices have risen dramatically
Government aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% of 1990 levels by 2010
Nuclear generates 20% of the UK's electricity
All but one of UK's nuclear power stations are set to close by 2023 and no more are planned
They say nuclear power is safe, and that the 1957 Windscale fire in the UK, Three Mile Island in the US in 1979, and even Chernobyl have killed massively fewer people than the oil and coal industries.

Beyond that, they say modern reactors are inherently far safer than those built 20 or 30 years ago, reducing a small risk still further.

Supporters say uranium prices have remained steady for decades, meaning nuclear energy is far more secure than fossil fuels can ever be.

And they argue that modern nuclear power systems are far more economic than the older versions, and are therefore a good investment.

And yet their opponents insist that, if nuclear power really is the answer, then we must be asking the wrong question.

Terror fears

There is an inevitable link between civil and military atoms, they retort. If we say we need them to stave off climate change, then so can countries like Iran and North Korea - and there is no impermeable barrier between electricity and bombs.

NUCLEAR: BACK ON THE AGENDA
In his 2005 party conference speech, Prime Minister Tony Blair promised an energy review in 2006
He said "assessment of all options, including civil nuclear power" was necessary
Trade Secretary Alan Johnson has said a decision on new nuclear power stations must be made "pretty soon"
The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) was set up in April 2005 to take responsibility for all UK decommissioning
The Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM), set up to recommend options for waste disposal, is due to report in 2006
They say nuclear energy is economic only under a very restricted analysis - by the time you have factored in the costs of construction, insurance, waste disposal and decommissioning, you need huge subsidies.

And, opponents ask, what happens to the waste? The only answer we have come up with so far entails storing the most radioactive waste under guard for millennia, until it has decayed to safe levels.

Certainly nuclear power would provide energy to a centralised supply system. But it would do nothing directly to reduce CO2 from transport, unless it made the advent of the hydrogen economy likelier.

Also, given the long planning and construction lead times, it would be a good decade or so before we saw any new power stations, even if we decided to go ahead today.

I once heard from a British environment secretary, Chris (now Lord) Patten, a telling definition of the problem. "Nuclear power? To most people, it's witchcraft," he told his hearers.

Worker puts together nuclear fuel assembly

Most of us worry far more about something that we see as very unlikely but grotesquely horrible than we do about what we perceive as far likelier but much more mundane.

We have a horror of dying in an air crash, but not of driving to the airport along far more dangerous roads.

We fear radioactive death, but cock an insouciant snook at the risk of dying painfully from the effects of smoking, or obesity, or alcohol.

To that degree, our distrust of nuclear energy may be partly irrational. In other ways, though, it makes very good sense.

Consumer demand

Getting rid of civil reactors would not remove the risk of a nuclear war breaking out, but it would reduce it.

Beyond that, in the past, the nuclear industry (at least in the UK) has at times been cavalier with the truth.

One Conservative Minister said 15 years ago: "It is depressing to stand up in the House of Commons and broadcast explicit assurances from our nuclear 'experts' one day, only to find them discredited the next."

Greenpeace activists on the reactor dome of the Dutch power plant in Borssele, Getty Images
Many environmental groups remain hotly opposed to nuclear power
A veteran of the nuclear industry wrote this: "What the industry needs to regain the support of the British public is... something akin to a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"It needs to be admitted that governments and industry lied to the public about the links with the military programme" (Nuclear Europe Worldscan, 1998).

The signs are that the captains of today's industry are different and far more open. But the distrust persists.

Two sets of figures crystallise the dilemma. The UK's nuclear power stations produce about 20% of the country's electricity, and by 2023 all are due to have closed. But by 2030 it is estimated world CO2 emissions will be 62% higher than today, as global demand for energy grows.

By mid-century we could be on the verge of producing power from nuclear fusion, a radically different technology.

Getting from here to there is the tricky bit. We are understandably terrified of nuclear meltdown, but far fewer of us yet fear the prospect of planetary overheating as we should.


SEE ALSO
Viewpoint: German nuclear phase-out
21 Oct 05 |  Science/Nature

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