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Last Updated: Tuesday, 26 April, 2005, 07:27 GMT 08:27 UK
Analysis: Do we need nuclear?
Sarah Mukherjee
By Sarah Mukherjee
BBC News Environment Correspondent

Between them, the UK's 14 nuclear power stations provide about a quarter of Britain's electricity.

Dungeness Nuclear Power Station in Kent
Dungeness B will shut in 2008

However, these stations are getting old - half are due to be decommissioned between now and 2010 - and by 2023 all but Sizewell B will have shut.

Some environmental campaigners say the sooner the better; the nuclear industry, they say, produces toxic waste that we are leaving as a burden to future generations and that the risk of accidents make it an unacceptable form of energy.

But, as the industry itself points out, nuclear power is almost carbon neutral.

According to government figures, carbon emissions which fell during the 1990s are now on the way up again - and as a government web site points out, nuclear generation currently reduces national carbon emissions by between 7 and 14%.

Lesser evil

The nuclear industry says we simply will not be able to meet our targets for reducing our carbon emissions unless nuclear energy has a part to play - and, privately, that is a view that finds sympathetic listeners in government.

Even some environmentalists share this view - although it has to be stressed that they are in a distinct minority.

They say however, that nuclear is the lesser of two evils - it's better to leave nuclear waste, than to destroy the planet by burning so much oil and coal that we leave our children and grandchildren with runaway climate change.

The UK's largest power firm, British Energy, in a recent research paper, suggested that to meet future energy demands the government needs to consider maintaining the current level of nuclear capacity.

This would require, it said, commissioning about 10 power stations of 1000-1200MW capacity between 2010 and 2025.

There is no magic bullet - we need a whole portfolio of energy measures to meet our increasing demand

The government's view is that "while nuclear is currently an important source of carbon free electricity, the current economics of nuclear power make it an unattractive option for new generating capacity and there are also important issues for nuclear waste to be resolved".

But the possibility that new nuclear build might be needed in the future, to meet carbon reduction objectives, is not being ruled out.

The economics referred to in the quotation is the crippling cost of new nuclear power stations - estimated at about 10bn pounds over a period of about 20 years.

Any decision to build more power stations would need some sort of financial input from the government, say industry experts, to offset this huge financial undertaking.

And even if the government agreed to this, the planning process for a new nuclear power station - with all the public opposition that would almost certainly greet such a proposal - could be lengthy to say the least.

Slow take-up

British Energy has urged the government to consider streamlining the planning process if they decided to go ahead with new power stations - and added that there are sites where nuclear facilities are currently operating that could be used for new stations, like Sizewell, Dungeness and Hartlepool.

But could we live without nuclear power?

At present, less than 3% of the UK's electricity supply comes from renewable sources.

The government has set a target that, by 2010, 10% of electricity should come from renewable sources - but there are some in the industry who doubt we will hit that target.

Renewables experts say that the sector could provide a significant amount of Britain's energy requirements - but admit the take-up is slow.

Significant challenge

"There is nothing wrong with renewable technology as such but if we look at the rate of penetration [of these new technologies] it is looking quite likely that it will not meet all our future energy requirements," says John Loughhead, Executive Director of the UK Energy Research Centre.

There is no magic bullet - we need a whole portfolio of energy measures to meet our increasing demand.

For example we are looking at ways to redesign carbon burning systems to ensure that less carbon is released.

There are a whole range of renewable sources, and we can reduce demand, perhaps using new technology to increase the efficiency of the energy we use.

It is theoretically possible to do without nuclear power, but within the timescale and the practicalities of doing this, while maintaining a viable energy supply, it poses a number of significant challenges."

Nuclear power stations
Station Capacity in MW Closes
Calder Hall 194 2003
Chapelcross 196 2005
Dungeness A 450 2006
Dungeness B 1110 2008
Hartlepool 1210 2014
Heysham 1 1150 2014
Heysham 2 1250 2023
Hinkley Point B 1220 2011
Hunterston B 1190 2011
Oldbury 434 2008
Sizewell A 420 2006
Sizewell B 1188 2035
Torness 1250 2023
Wylfa 980 2010
Source: DTI






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