Guardian Live: should we say yes to nuclear power?

Originally published by the Guardian)

Last month George Osborne backed a deal with China to build a new £24bn nuclear power plant at Hinkley Point in Somerset. The government claims the new plant will be relied on to deliver 7% of the UK’s electricity while providing a low cost, low carbon alternative to fossil fuels. 

Photo by Stefan Kuhn/ Wikimedia Commons. 
But not everyone agrees, with critics arguing the plants will be expensive to build and questioning whether nuclear energy represents a safe, clean and cost-effective energy future. 

On Thursday the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester played host to a public debate as part of the Manchester Science Festival in which four expert panellists debated the motion: Nuclear power, yes please. These were some of their thoughts:

Four reasons why nuclear is the answer:

Britain has led the way in developing nuclear technology
Dr Fiona Rayment, director of Fuel Cycle Solutions, argued that Britain should be proud of its leading role in developing nuclear technology since the first generation of reactors were introduced in the 1950s and 60s. “We’re actually at a stage where six decades on we’re at the third generation of nuclear reactors across the world and the UK has led the way in a lot of that reactor technology” she enthused. “…I actually believe that nuclear power is a reliable, secure and clean technology for the current and the future.”

Energy demands are set to increase
With the majority of the UK’s energy still produced with fossil fuels, the government faces big challenges if it is to cut carbon emissions whilst continuing to meet growing energy demands in the future. “When you think about the fact that energy includes electricity, heat and transport…some projections say that by 2050 that [demand] is going to increase by about 3-fold,” said Dr Rayment. Professor of Radiochemistry, Francis Livens agreed: “You need vastly more energy than we have and you don’t have that many ways of getting large amounts of energy reliably, on tap in quantity.”

More reliable and efficient than renewables
Livens stressed that although he was not uncritical of nuclear technology, it was the “least worst option” under the circumstances: “There are renewables, certainly, but you have big questions about their reliability and ability to deliver huge quantities of energy that would be implied by giving much more energy to the majority of the world.” Rayment concurred: “We have to put things in context. You have to have 1000 windmills to actually be equivalent to one nuclear power plant,” she told the audience.

Britain’s nuclear regulation is second to none
Although the Nuclear industry has been blighted by a history of disasters, such as Chernobyl and Fukushima, the panellists in favour of the motion reassured the audience that Britain has a world leading reputation when it comes to the regulating the industry. “With any industry we need to have the right level of regulation and safety is of upmost importance. Our regulatory body in the UK is highly regarded throughout the world.

And four reasons why it’s not…

Hinkley Point deal is prohibitively expensive
Speaking against the motion the Guardian’s environment editor, John Vidal, described the Chinese project at Hinkley Point a “rotten deal” pointing out that no completion date has yet been declared and that electricity produced by the plant is likely to be expensive. “This is the most expensive project [of its kind] that Britain has ever approached…The only people who can afford it are the Chinese government and the French government. We can’t afford it so we have to go elsewhere,” he said.

Nuclear waste
In 1980 Manchester became the first city to become a ‘nuclear free zone’ following a resolution passed by the council which banned the storage of nuclear waste in the area. Local Labour councillor Grace Fletcher-Hackwood warned the audience that there is no adequate way of getting rid of nuclear waste once it’s been produced. Responding to whether nuclear should form part of Britain’s future energy mix she replied: “When no policy currently exists for the waste that has been produced over the last 60 years you have to wonder whether we shouldn’t first sort out our nuclear past.

Renewable technology has come on in leaps and bounds
When it comes to renewables, the UK is lagging behind European competitors such as Germany which is phasing out its nuclear reactors and where renewables already produce nearly 30% of electricity supply. Vidal argued that while renewable energy may have been in its infancy 10 years ago, today the sector is witnessing a technological revolution: “Battery technologies are changing and may hold the future for storage which is fantastically exciting. Wind energy is now cheaper than all other sources put together,” he explained, “If just one tenth of the research money which is put into nuclear were put into renewable energy we know perfectly well we would have a different world.”

Chernobyl-style disasters a real danger
Over several decades there have been dozens of serious accidents at nuclear power stations around the world. According to a recently published peer reviewed statistical analysis of global nuclear accidents there is a 50:50 chance we will see another Chernobyl incident within the next 50 years. “China is building 400 new nuclear reactors. More than 200 of these are in seismically dangerous areas. Most of these are facing the sea and with sea levels rising we know what’s going to happen,” warned Vidal. 


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