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Nuclear energy - too risky or a necessity?

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Can nuclear solve our energy crisis?

April 30th, 2013

by Lima Curtis

Lima Curtis asks whether we have no option other than to invest in nuclear energy, or whether the costs - financial and otherwise - are just too great.

Nuclear has six-times the carbon footprint of onshore wind

We are on the brink of an energy crisis.

If we are to believe the headlines, we will either run out of energy completely - leading to blackouts, or our reliance on expensive foreign supplies will drive already steep prices higher and higher, causing widespread fuel poverty.

It is clear something needs to be done, but is the answer nuclear energy?

For many it is simple; we need energy and we need it now, and not only will nuclear energy provide this energy, it will also bring a much needed boost to our economy.

Speaking at EcoBuild recently, Professor Sir David King, former governmental chief scientific advisor, said nuclear was the only way to prevent blackouts.

He said: “If we want to keep the lights on, then nuclear is a good idea. If we want to stimulate the economy it might be a better idea to create direct stimulation by investing in the energy sector… and while nuclear is expensive to build, we know the government can borrow very cheaply.”

Currently nuclear power generates around one sixth of the UK's electricity and energy analysts from the UK Centre for Policy Studies estimate one in three households will be in fuel poverty by 2030 unless more nuclear power plants are built.

Last month, planning consent was given for a new nuclear plant at Hinkley in Somerset. The plant will be capable of powering an estimated five million homes as well as creating about 20,000 jobs during construction and 900 permanent jobs after.

But the sheer cost of constructing, insuring, running and decommissioning are vast, with estimates for Hinkley’s lifespan ranging from low to high billions.

On top of this, the lengthy construction period of a nuclear power plant (about ten years) may render the plant useless. By the time the reactors are ready, government policy, technology and/or need may have changed.

For many, the obvious solution would be to make the world more energy efficient - rather than increasing energy supplies, decrease energy demand.

However, developed country’s energy demands have actually plateaued over the last few years, and it is emerging economies like China and India whose high energy needs have increased as their economies and health and education systems improve.

They have no option to slow down on consumption.

Mark Lynass, author, journalist and environmental activist (also speaking at EcoBuild) said no other renewable technology could cope with the huge scale of emerging energy use, while reducing carbon emissions. However, even he admitted nuclear was not viable at a global scale unless costs came down.

For many, the recent memories of Fukushima are just too unsettling to support the construction of new nuclear plants.

And while some may consider nuclear a renewable energy source, a report in Nature (2008) showed nuclear had twice the carbon footprint of solar PV and six-times that of onshore wind.

But what other options do we have? Coal, oil and gas remain expensive and rapidly unsecure resources, leaving only solar PV and wind as environmentally friendly alternatives.

Already solar PV panel use has soared in the Middle East, Australia, Europe and Africa, with the US army utilising it in several bases across America.

And as prices continue to drop and its technology advance, solar will become the only option that makes sense. Nuclear is simply too risky and expensive.

Lima Curtis writes about matters of energy and the environment for The Earth and the Independent.





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