NEW POLL: what’s your view on nuclear power?

Yesterday the Government released a list of 11 sites in England and Wales where new nuclear power stations could be built, with the aim of having the first reactors operational within a decade.

The Lib Dems’ shadow energy and climate change secretary Simon Hughes was unequivocal in stating his anti-nuclear position on behalf of the party, branding this new generation of nuclear power stations a “colossal mistake”:

They are hugely expensive, dangerous and will take too long to build. There is a real danger that the Government is becoming too close to and [sic] the big energy companies. The best answer to Britain’s needs is a massive expansion of renewable energy. If billions of pounds are wasted on new nuclear sites the money simply won’t be available to do this.”

Almost two years ago, in May 2007, the Lib Dems’ David Howarth set out extensive proposals for a completely renewable energy system – through a mix of wind, tide and wave energy, as well as solar, biomass and geothermal energy – which the party said would ‘provide for Britain’s current electricity demand many times over’.

But the party acknowledged that it would take time – at least until 2050 – for this to happen. In the interim, David advocated investing in ‘carbon capture and storage technology’ – “better on grounds of flexibility, compatibility with renewables and microgeneration, safety, waste, proliferation, counter-terrorism, security of supply, and benefit to the British economy”. Going down the nuclear route would, he argue, “crowd out renewable energy, leaving us further away from the eventual goal of full sustainability”.

Not everyone is convinced, however. John Thurso has in the past expressed qualified support for nuclear power as “the least worst option” while Lib Dem MEP Chris Davies argues that:

the imperative now is to fight global warming. We cannot ignore the fact that our existing nuclear power stations do not release carbon dioxide. Carbon emissions will rise as they come to the end of their lives.”

Here, then, is the question for you, LDV’s readers: Do you think nuclear power is an essential component of the UK’s future energy policy?

Here are your options:

>> Yes, nuclear power should be part of the energy mix
>> Perhaps, would wish to see renewable alternatives but prefer nuclear power to fossil fuels
>> No, nuclear power should be ruled out now
>> Don’t know / other

As ever, please feel free to provide more nuanced answers in the comments thread…

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27 Comments

  • Can’t vote for any of the options offered.

    If we had no nuclear capacity then I’d not want to see us start – but given that we already have stations (and therefore the issues around long-term storage and safety) AND we have a looming shortfall in electricity generating capacity AND we have a likely global warming issue, then I would accept a limited programme of new stations to “bridge the gap”.

  • Andrew Duffield 16th Apr '09 - 11:31pm

    There are 2 basic reasons why nuclear power remains a non-option: 1 – it cannot be delivered without subsidy (including insurance exemption) and is therefore economically unsustainable; 2 – there is still no safe way to dispose of the waste, making it ecologically unsustainable too. If something is neither ecologically nor economically sustainable, it cannot be politically sustained or supported by Liberals. QED.

  • Nuclear is undesirable, but if it comes to a choice between nuclear, or turning off my lights, PC and fridge, I vote nuclear.

    I’d rather see renewables, but sadly there are plenty of (even!) us Libs campaigning against the only possible alternative to nuclear – i.e. “nimbys” against windfarms and “greens” against channel/river barrages because of the ecological impact.

    I just can’t see us getting far enough with renewables in the time we have before we’re in trouble. Nuclear is certainly preferable to more coal or gas.

    I am astonished and horrified to learn we have 3 new gas stations being built currently. What a waste…

  • coldcomfort 17th Apr '09 - 9:03am

    There ARE safe ways of disposing of nuclear waste. The nuclear stuff that serves no foreseeable useful purpose (unless we envisage going to war against the USA) are warheads & submarines. The party should re-think its’ position on nuclear power generation.

  • I would urge anyone unpersuaded of the need for nuclear power to go and look at a nuclear power station. Most are no larger than a big warehouse, they make no noise and emit no smell. The waste can, in theory, be fired into the sun, and ways of neutralising it may yet be found.

    I am concerned by the failure to develop alternatives to hydrocarbon fuel. Electric cars that travel at 20mph and need to be recharged every half hour don’t provide a solution. I am told that better technologies do exist (at least on paper) but that the oil companies don’t want them developed until the last drop of oil is extracted.

    Clearly, the Party’s policy has to change, and change fast. Nuclear power is the only realistic alternative to the continued burning of fossil fuel, and wind-farms are vote-losing eyesores.

  • “We can’t produce the amount of renewable energy we need in the UK, maintaining our currently lifestyle,”

    There’s no reason why one end of that equation as to remain fixed though. We are seeing changes in people’s lifestyles as a result of the economic downturn – there is no fundamental difference in theory.

    “The waste can, in theory, be fired into the sun,”
    Possibly the maddest suggestion on this site for some time. Of course it’s true in theory – but you only need one rocket launch failure (and rates are fairly high by comparision with other things) and you have a big big problem.

    My objection to nuclear is this. Say were dependent on nuclear for say 40% of our electricity generation. Then imagine a serious fault at one plant, one that could have, but in fact didn’t lead to a significant radioactive leak.

    There would then be massive pressure to shut down the other plants as a precautionary measure. Alternatively the incident would be hushed up (and almost inevitably leak) to prevent that situation arising.

  • Sesenco said “The waste can, in theory, be fired into the sun..” – so you’re proposing we dispose of nuclear waste by creating massive nuclear missiles then? Or by putting it on the space shuttle and hoping it doesn’t explode on take-off?

    The big problem with nuclear power is waste. Until this can be disposed of safely, then then you can’t really consider nuclear as a long-term option for the replacement of fossil fuels. It’s one of the few things which Alex Salmond has got right since 2007.

    In any case, we (in Scotland at least) have got plenty wind, sea, and rivers to keep us going in power for some time – remember, one of the old state-owned power companies was (and still is) the Scottish Hydro-Electric board (N Scotland) as that’s where most of its power came from.

  • A number of ostrich comments here.

    KL appears to be making a case for dam-building – about the most environmentally destructive means of electricity generation there is. The late Barnes Wallis had the perfect solution to dams.

    Hywel thinks that firing nuclear waste into the sun is mad. Well, the proposal came from Monsignor Bruce Kent (former President of CND) (a priest) so maybe it is mad (?!).

    Then Aaron tells us that relying on Mr Vladimir Putin for our energy supply just isn’t a problem. Right.

    Let us be under no illusion. Exclusive reliance on “renewables” would result in a catastrophic decline in living standards. Now, that is precisely what the guilt-ridden hairshirters of the Green Party would love to happen. But is it what Liberal Democrats want?

  • Andrew Duffield 17th Apr '09 - 3:08pm

    Joe

    You asked: “Does “economically unsustainable” mean something other than expensive? If so, what?”

    Economic sustainability has nothing to do with price. It simply means that real production costs will always be higher than potential revenue, making nuclear unviable.

    There is enough distortion in the market through state subsidies without adding more nuclear subsidy to the mix. In a free and level market place, ideally with a per joule tax levied at economic source, the most efficient (i.e. least polluting) and most cost effective energy sources would win out. Nuclear wouldn’t even come close, although as a Liberal I’d be very happy for it to compete – on level terms of course.

  • Matthew Smith 17th Apr '09 - 7:39pm

    To begin, full disclosure: I work for Areva, the French company likely to build many or all of the new reactors in the UK. By the time I graduated with a Masters in physics last year I already knew I wanted to work in the nuclear industry, and I didn’t look anywhere else, because this is a technology I strongly believe in.

    I think that the Liberal Democrat opposition to nuclear energy is not consistent with the scale of the energy challenge we face globally in the coming decades. The world will need some 30 trillion watts of clean power (currently we use about 13 trillion, almost entirely from fossil fuels) if decent living standards are to be achieved in the developing world without destroying the climate. That’s assuming that development is as energy efficient as possible.

    In the UK, we can certainly use less energy but more of the energy we use will have to be delivered as electricity if we are to cut CO2 emissions in space heating and transport, so electricity supply will probably have to grow. We get 80% of our electricity from fossil fuels today.

    Right now, neither a system based on the abundant renewable energy sources (wind and solar), nor carbon capture, have been demonstrated at anything like the relevant scale anywhere in the world. There are sound technical reasons to doubt that either approach will be practical at scale.

    Across the channel we have an existence proof – a prosperous, high tech economy – where close to 80% of the electricity comes from nuclear reactors. We import 2,000 MW of that low CO2 electricity to use in the UK, by the way, through the UK-France interconnector.

    Nuclear energy has its problems, but I think that when they are considered in a holistic manner and contrasted with those of the alternatives, one can see that they have been greatly exaggerated.

    The used nuclear fuel is a very dangerous material, but it is produced in tiny quantities relative to the energy supplied. Our high tech economy routinely handles other very dangerous materials, but there is a unique perception of danger associated with ionising radiation, probably because it is poorly understood by the public. I am confident that used fuel can be safely handled. I, however, would not want it buried, because I know that future reactor types will probably be able to use the most difficult isotopes as fuel. In the long term, I think we will see a fuel cycle using fast neutron reactors that leaves only relatively short lived (up to 400 years) fission products as waste. These reactors, by the way, are much better demonstrated even today than carbon capture and storage or an all diffuse renewable power grid (all hydro grids do exist for instance in Norway, but hydro cannot scale to solve the problem, we have already dammed most of the suitable rivers).

    The same fast neutron reactors can also solve the problem of uranium supply since they will fission the U-238 that makes up 99.3% of natural uranium, multiplying the fuel supply 100 times.

    Safety is, I think, a largely solved problem in modern reactor designs (of which Chernobyl certainly was not an example). In fact, light water reactors of the type we would build in the UK have a superb safety record in their previous incarnations, and the new ones would be safer.

    The economics of nuclear power are challenging because most of the costs are up front: building the expensive, high tech power plant. After that the fuel is cheap (less than 10% of the total cost, compare with 80% for gas) which protects customers from volatile electricity prices. Contrary to some accounts, the French nuclear industry after an initial period of government funding is now very profitable and has vastly more than paid back its start up costs in taxes – note that French electricity is cheaper than most other places in Europe. Nuclear fission can be an affordable energy source, its just not a good choice for investors looking to make a quick return.

    The biggest issue I see is weapons proliferation, since there is some overlap between civilian and military nuclear technology, particularly in the areas of enrichment and reprocessing of used fuel. However, I think that with strong international safeguards and appropriate design of fuel cycle technologies to build in proliferation resistance, this issue can be managed.

    I don’t think nuclear fission is a perfect energy source obviously, but it has some tremendous advantages. Fission can release enormous amounts of heat under our control (not that of the weather), from a tiny amount of material – a typical 1,000 nuclear plant uses about 10 tonnes of fuel per year; a coal plant with the same output uses more than a million tonnes of coal. This energy density allows the footprint of the generating plant to be very small, whereas diffuse renewables will have to cover the country to make a big contribution. The waste products are dangerous but small in volume, so they can easily be confined, whereas the dangerous waste products of fossil fuel combustion have to be dumped in the environment. And with fast neutron reactors, enough fuel exists to provide comfortable living standards to the world for centuries.

    When it has all this to offer, the Liberal Democrats are wrong to reject nuclear fission.

  • It’s interesting to see that when we’re talking about nuclear power, we’re still talking about monolithic power stations. One of the concerns with nuclear power is that these buildings are often sited on the coast, which means that coastal erosion due to climate change becomes an issue.

    Nuclear technologies like pebble-bed reactors exist – these are very safe nuclear microgeneration facilities, can scale from a shed upwards, are basically impossible to meltdown, and involve fairly low radiation levels. One of these in every city would be a decentralised, safer and more secure solution to a nuclear energy outlook, and yet nobody is talking about them.

  • Matthew Smith 18th Apr '09 - 5:26pm

    To Dave Page:

    Firstly, I do not think that the danger posed by coastal erosion or flooding to nuclear plants built at existing sites will be too great. They are fairly compact installations and constructing effective defences will not be too difficult, should it prove necessary.

    Secondly, the economics of small reactors are very unfavourable unless you are willing to forego one of the central planks of nuclear safety; specifically, that three barriers should isolate the radioactive fuel and fission products from the environment, including a large steel reinforced concrete containment building. It was this building that prevented a significant release of radioactive material during the Three Mile Island accident in 1979. Chernobyl notably lacked such a structure.

    The trend in reactor design has been from smaller to larger units, largely because doubling the output of the reactor will less than double the cost of the containment (‘economy of scale’).

    ‘Pebble bed’ reactors are an example of a type that was pursued, and ultimately abandoned, in many countries – the gas graphite reactor (gas cooled, graphite moderated). They differ from the historical gas graphite concept in that the fuel and pyrolytic graphite moderator are combined to form TRISO (TRiple coated ISOmorphic) fuel pebbles. These, as you say, cannot melt down because the reactivity of the core decreases as the temperature increases (this is also true of well designed light water reactors) and the maximum temperature is below the melting point of the fuel pebbles (which is not true for LWRs). Other accident scenarios are feasible however, notably including a graphite fire which is what happened at Windscale, so having a containment would still be a good idea.

    The concept has advantages and drawbacks. The main advantage is a much higher primary circuit outlet temperature, allowing more efficient conversion of nuclear heat to electricity or use of nuclear heat in chemical process applications. The disadvantages include low power density – leading to the need for large cores and large containments – and the difficulty of reprocessing the fuel pebbles. They also produce more used fuel in terms of volume.

    In general, I think that the recently fashionable ‘small is beautiful’ mantra in energy discussions is highly dubious.

  • As I work for a power company I’d better go anonymous on this one.

    I understand the pro-nuclear arguments made on this thread. But….

    There is a tendency for people to call for a little itsy bit of nuclear, just to fill in the gaps, before we can get renewables to take over in the longer term. That isn’t going to work.

    The only people who have made a rip-roaring success out of nuclear are the French. They didn’t do it by halves. They bet the farm on nuclear. Almost all their power is nuclear. The massive development, construction and safety costs were thereby spread over multiple plants, making the economics viable.

    For almost everyone else, the costs and delays have invariably been much higher than expected. It just is a much more expensive and difficult enterprise to build a nuclear reactor, make it safe, and prove it safe, than to build a glorified kettle that burns coal or oil!

    If we go for nuclear, all our engineers and all our financial resources will have to go for nuclear. We can pretty much kiss goodbye to carbon capture, renewables, insulation, etc – we won’t have the money, or the engineers, to do any of those.

    Also, it is false propaganda to argue that Chernobyl was a less safe design than Western nuclear plant. What caused Chernobyl was human error, pure and simple. The Russian elite engineers thought they could disable the safety systems and do clever experiments. They got it wrong, as humans often do. Western engineers are human too.

    Western engineers also have to cope with excessive secrecy which covers up problems and makes serious human errors more likely. I have worked for the nationalised CEGB and a privatised successor, and I can tell you to ignore ideology. These pressures apply in both cases. I’m a lot happier if I see corner-cutting on conventional coal plant, where the risk might be a handful of deaths, rather than on nuclear plant, where it might have meant writing off most of Kent.

    Carbon capture is no panacea, but, tentatively, I would prefer to bet the farm on that. First, because China is going to burn vast quantities of coal, come what may. Our decision to go nuclear on one small island is not going to save the planet, if China go ahead with their plans. Our decision to develop carbon capture instead – which could also be sold to the Chinese – could be much more effective in combating global warming.

    That said, companies like mine need to be cut some slack. They argue that carbon capture (CCS) is not yet developed. They are right. To be forced to build a massive CCS unit as part of the new Kingsnorth plant would be a huge gamble with untried technology. It would waste money. Yes, the companies’ demand to build new coal plant without committing to CCS is partly special pleading. Government needs to drive a hard bargain. But to insist on full CCS straight away would just be a stupidly tough demand. Nick Clegg please note.

    And don’t forget that the new Kingsnorth generating at 45% efficiency will replace the present Kingsnorth generating at 35% efficiency, which means a big saving in carbon emissions. At the moment, UK policy is to do nothing much, and keep blatting away at 35% efficiency with ever more ageing plant, while covering up a lack of government action with a torrent of green verbiage. That makes no sense.

    We should be insulating like crazy, we should have a crash programme to build passive houses, we should be developing CCS, and we should be building more wind farms. I would suggest that we can only afford all that if we say no to nuclear.

  • 1mpert1nent 25th May '09 - 4:46pm

    How infuriating. I am about to cast my postal vote for 4th June when I discover there are, after all, some Lib Dems who share my view about nuclear power. My problem is that the foot-shooting syndrome persists within the party policy-makers parlour.
    Heaven knows who decided that the Luddites should lead on this topic. No doubt the policy will change in the fullness of time.
    But not in time to secure my vote!
    Farewell, Oh well-pressed trouser-man!

  • Jack Roberts 5th May '10 - 2:00pm

    I also recommend the David MacKay book some people have mentioned. Basically I think the Lib Dems are very naive to think that it is possible for the UK to have an energy future without nuclear. It is definitely completely unrealistic to expect to replace nuclear plants with renewables alone.

    I will be voting Lib Dem tomorrow, but I’d be a lot more comfortable with my vote if they reviewed their anti-nuclear position, because I can’t see how we can avoid black outs in the future without it.

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