Nuclear power is critical to Britain's future
Renewable power will not stop global warming or blackouts

Britain must build a new generation of nuclear power stations to prevent blackouts and fight global warming.

Sir Alec Broers, the president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said that government plans to generate 20 per cent of electricity from renewable sources by 2020 were unrealistic and investment in nuclear power was critical if shortages were to be avoided.

All but one of the nuclear plants that now generate almost a quarter of Britain’s electricity are due to close in the next two decades, and ministers have refused to make a commitment to building replacements.

The recent Energy White Paper instead set ambitious targets for renewable power, such as wind and tidal energy, and plans to meet remaining electricity needs from fossil fuels.

This policy made overoptimistic assumptions about the potential and cost of renewables, and would do little to cut emissions of greenhouse gases, Sir Alec said.

While the Government was right to invest in wind power, it would be a huge and misguided gamble to ignore nuclear power as an important element of the energy mix.

Sir Alec’s fears, which he voiced in an interview with The Times, add to growing concern about the security of Britain’s energy supply, an issue that has risen sharply on the political agenda after the blackout that struck the United States and Canada last week.

Energy experts said on Friday that similar power cuts could happen here as soon as next winter, and Brian Wilson, a former Energy Minister, said that electricity prices would have to rise to improve capacity.

Reports from the Royal Academy of Engineers and the Institution of Civil Engineers have told ministers that they will have to approve new nuclear power stations to guarantee future supplies.

Sir David King, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, has made the same recommendation.

Roger Higman, of Friends of the Earth, disputed the need for new nuclear power stations, however, saying that there were better ways of reducing greenhouse emissions.

“Nuclear power is expensive, dirty and unreliable,” he said. “Last week France was desperately trying to hose down its nuclear plants to keep them operational in the heatwave, and the closure for safety reasons of ten nuclear plants in the US was instrumental in the crash of their electricity system.

“The problem with listening to engineers on this issue is that they see one part of the problem, but not the broader environmental issues that are at stake.”

Sir Alec, also the outgoing Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, said that ministers needed to ignore “emotion and exaggeration” about the dangers of nuclear power.

The Government was wrong to see nuclear and renewable energy as mutually exclusive “either/or” options, and would do best to invest in both, at least until nuclear fusion became a practical option, he said.

“I think we need both,” he said. “We need to keep working on fusion, and the engineering problems of this still remain extreme. But until we get to fusion, nuclear is the best we’ve got. There are no fundamental supply problems. Nuclear remains very important to our energy needs. I support entirely a very serious continuation of study of nuclear power.”

The Energy White Paper, he said, had been too generous to the potential role that renewables can play. “The view of wind power is over-optimistic — that we can get to 20 per cent renewable energy by 2020 and that it will be as straightforward as that. Some forms may be far more expensive than we think they are.

“All of these energy sources should carry the costs of their overheads with them. If you have wind power, you have to have back-up from gas generation, for when there is not enough wind, and the cost of those plants has to be added to the cost of wind power.

“We can’t just put up wind turbines and generate a lot of electricity for free. We will need to redesign the grid, set up reserves for when the wind isn’t blowing strongly enough, learn how to store power.”

A positive decision in favour of nuclear power was needed urgently, because without it there was a real risk that Britain would lose the engineering and technology base required to build new plants.

“We had a lot of expertise in nuclear power, and that is something we’ve got to look at,” Sir Alec said. “If and when the decision comes, we have to be sure we are not without the people and the skills to do that. We’ve got to have a good understanding of the problem, and the decision musn’t be one that’s based on emotion and exaggeration.

“The alternatives are very damaging. We just cannot go on producing excessive amounts of carbon dioxide and burning fossil fuels.

“There are areas, and energy is surely one of them, where the Government has a role to bring things together. It isn’t really picking winners; it’s building a fundamental base of technology.”

Britain now has a diversity of energy sources, with gas stations contributing 38 per cent of electricity, coal-fired stations 32 per cent, nuclear 23 per cent, oil 4 per cent and renewables 3 per cent.

The Government aims to increase the proportion generated from renewables to 10 per cent by 2010 and to 20 per cent by 2020, as part of the country’s strategy to cut greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Kyoto treaty.

By 2020, however, all but one of the present generation of nuclear power stations will have been decommissioned. If these are not replaced, and assuming that the renewables target is met, Britain will effectively stand still in greenhouse gas emissions.

A decision to build nuclear plants as well could potentially see up to 40 per cent of Britain’s electricity generated from carbon-neutral sources.

Zdroj: The Times

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