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Last Updated: Monday, 16 May, 2005, 12:57 GMT 13:57 UK
Is Britain's future really nuclear?
By Hannah Goff
BBC News Website

When the "father" of the environmental movement, James Lovelock, declared that nuclear energy was the only practical answer to the challenges of global warming he set off a chain reaction.

A uranium leak at Sellafield has shut its reprocessing plant
With many politicians persuaded by that argument and a review of nuclear power now all but certain, it seems that Lovelock's clarion call could end in a new nuclear building programme in the UK.

But was he right to suggest that only a huge expansion in nuclear power, with its zero carbon emissions, can stop the runaway train that is the greenhouse effect?


Britain's 14 nuclear power stations are coming to the end of their lifetimes, with half due to be decommissioned between now and 2010. By 2023 all but one will have shut.

We will find soon that our electricity supply becomes even more fragile and we get power cuts and it will get worse
Prof Ian Fells
Chairman of the New and Renewable Energy Centre
This means nuclear power's contribution to Britain's electricity supply will be cut by two-thirds from its present 21% level to 7% by 2020.

Green group Friends of the Earth says that, even if you solved the problem of what to do with radioactive nuclear waste and could guarantee against Chernobyl-type accidents, there simply isn't enough time for a revival.

It points to the fact that the last nuclear power station to be built in the UK, Sizewell B, took 15 years to go from proposal to electricity production and cost more than twice its original budget.

Professor James Lovelock   Sandy Lovelock
James Lovelock was the first to see the earth as a living organism
"These facts swiftly brought to an end plans to build nine reactors of the same design," FOE climate campaigner Bryony Worthington says.

"In fact, we have never built a nuclear power reactor in this country on time or to budget or that has succeeded in achieving the levels of performance that were expected."

The group also claims the doubling of Britain's nuclear capacity - which ultimately means something like 28 new power stations - would only reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 8%.

And it provides no solution to the global warming gases produced by cars, lorries and domestic heating.

Fuel security

Chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association, Keith Parker, says that, if government decisions are taken quickly enough, a new generation of nuclear power stations could be ready to help Britain achieve its target of a 10% cut in emissions by 2020.

If measures were taken "to streamline some of the procedures at the beginning around licensing, regulation and the planning system", then 10 new stations could be up and running in 10 years' time, he says.

"It's around 2015 when the real problem of generating capacity would occur.

Inside the Sellafield plant

"It's not only nuclear stations that are coming out of use - it's the coal-fired stations, too."

This is because of EU directives forcing firms to cut their sulphur emissions, says Mr Parker.

His association supports renewable energy sources - but says, "they are not going to be able to replace all of that generational capacity".

This means the major generation will be carried out by power stations fired by gas - 80% of which will need to be imported by 2020, he argues.

"That should ring some alarm bells with politicians and consumers that we are relying on foreign sources - such as Russia, the Middle East and North Africa - for our fuel."

Chairman of the New and Renewable Energy Centre, Professor Ian Fells, agrees, arguing that Britain cannot do without nuclear power.

Waste build-up

"It's like a slow-motion train crash," he says: "If we don't do anything about this next year, and the next, nothing will happen. But we will find soon that our electricity supply becomes even more fragile and we get power cuts and it will get worse."

But former environment secretary Michael Meacher points to the fact that there is still no practical method of dealing with radioactive waste from nuclear power stations.

Harlock Hill windfarm
An expansion in wind farms must be approved by 2008 if CO2 targets are to be met
There is already 10,000 tonnes of high and intermediate level radioactive waste 90% of which is being stored at Cumbria's Sellafield nuclear plant until a solution can be found.

This is set to grow to half a million tonnes of nuclear waste by the end of this century even without any new build, Mr Meacher says

"Do we really want to generate more nuclear reactors producing even more waste when we don't know what to do with all the waste that is building up?"

The British Wind Energy Association (BWEA) says wind projects representing a 10th of the UK's electricity needs from on and offshore projects are either being commissioned or are due to enter the planning system over the next 12 months.

BWEA chief executive, Marcus Rand, says the government's Energy White Paper in 2003 was "seminal" because it put renewables and wind centre-stage.

'Another way'

Britain's six biggest energy firms now have to source an increasing proportion of energy from renewable sources each year and by 2010, 10% of our electricity has to come from renewable sources.

"Most analysis concludes that wind both on and offshore will form the bulk of that 10% because of its technological maturity," says Mr Rand.

"If you look at technological maturity as a 100m race, wind technology has already crossed the finishing line."

Traffic jam
Carbon capture and storage could help tackle car fume pollution
Mr Rand says he is confident wind power will be able to reach the further target of 20% by 2020 as long as it gets planning approval in time.

But without nuclear and with a reduction in coal-fired stations as well, a fifth falls well short of what is required.

For the FOE the answer lies in cleaning up existing coal and gas power stations - perhaps by taking the CO2 out of emissions and burying it deep underground.

Currently eight of the world's leading energy companies are working with governments on proving the technology and reducing the costs.

"It shouldn't be nuclear versus renewables. It's nuclear versus carbon-captured storage," says Miss Worthington.

"The industry believes they could get it going with about 30m a year. Nuclear power has had 30 years of subsidies, billions of dollars poured into it and it still only produces 7% of the world's energy.

"We've got to find another way of doing it."

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