Page last updated at 11:58 GMT, Thursday, 29 May 2008 12:58 UK

Ex-adviser backs nuclear increase

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Nuclear energy would be a good way to meet higher demands for power when electric cars grow in popularity, an ex-government scientific adviser says.

Better rechargeable batteries for cars will lead to a "shift" from petrol-fuelled vehicles to electric alternatives, Sir David King predicted.

Raising the proportion of nuclear power used by the National Grid to 35% would help to meet new demands, he added.

Gordon Brown has said the UK should increase its nuclear power capacity.

The prime minister called for nuclear plans to be "more ambitious" at a time when the price of oil was rising.

It was the first time he had said explicitly that building plans for nuclear plants should be expanded beyond merely having replacements to existing sites.

'Low carbon supply'

Sir David, who was the chief scientific adviser to the government from 2000 to 2007, said "a whole raft of policies" would be required in the future to achieve maximum "energy efficiency gains".

"What I foresee - and I really think this is on the cards - with the improvement of rechargeable batteries for cars is that we will shift from petrol in cars to electric cars, which means that we will be powering those cars off the grid.

The Sizewell B nuclear plant in Suffolk
Once you've switched on a power station, you keep running. You draw as much power from nuclear as you need at the lowest demand time
Sir David King, ex-chief scientific adviser to the government

"Increasing the amount of power that goes on the grid would go hand-in-hand with increased efficiency gains in domestic usage and so on," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

Asked how much nuclear energy he thought might be needed in the UK in future, he said that "35% of our maximum demand of electricity should come from nuclear".

"This keeps the total cost of electricity down and of course means we have a low carbon supply, and a secure supply. We have plenty of uranium in this country."

Nuclear energy had to be effectively "on all the time", Sir David added.

"Once you've switched on a power station, you keep running. You draw as much power from nuclear as you need at the lowest demand time - mid-summer, which is about 35% of peak."

'Quicker process'

Ministers said in January they backed new plants, but the focus was on replacing plants which were nearing the end of their lives, at the same site.

In March, Business Secretary John Hutton said he wanted the nuclear industry to go further than merely replacing its 23 ageing reactors, which provide 20% of the UK's electricity.

Sir David predicted the first plants to go up "will almost certainly go up on existing sites, because that means the planning process is much quicker".

"But as we proceed beyond that, there may well be the Health and Safety Executive coming up with reasons for other sites to be chosen, which would be better sites for nuclear power stations."

But critics of nuclear energy say it is expensive, creates radioactive waste and could become a target for terrorists.

Liberal Democrat environment spokesman Steve Webb said: "Gordon Brown is drawing totally the wrong conclusion from soaring oil prices. New nuclear power plants won't deliver any power for over a decade.

"Nuclear power is not the answer to today's energy crisis. The government should be focusing on greater energy efficiency, boosting renewables, and making sure that coal-fired power stations do not pollute the environment."

'Broken promises'

Greenpeace claims that even 10 new reactors would cut the UK's carbon emissions by only about 4% some time after 2025.

And environmental group Friends of the Earth has warned that huge sums of taxpayers' money would be needed to build a new generation of nuclear power stations.

It has criticised the "disastrous performance, broken promises and escalating bills to the taxpayer", which it claims have resulted from the UK's nuclear programme.

Energy minister Malcolm Wicks said the organisation needed to live in the "real world", however.

"Within the space of two days, Friends of the Earth have told us we not only need to wean ourselves off oil, but that we should also close our minds to nuclear power, one of the cheapest forms of low carbon energy available," he added.

In January the Conservatives backed the building of new nuclear power plants as long as no public subsidy was involved.

Energy policy is not a devolved matter but Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond has said there is "no chance" of more nuclear power stations being built in Scotland.

Any new plants would be the first in the UK since the opening of Sizewell B in Suffolk 14 years ago.

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