October 7, 2005

Nuclear Power Quietly Confident in Energy Debate

SELLAFIELD -- The nuclear power industry is quietly confident that the world is about to beat a path to its door in an increasingly desperate search for "clean" energy that doesn't heat up the planet.

Soaring oil prices and new data on global warming -- brought into sharp focus by devastating hurricanes in the United States -- have heated up the nuclear debate and outraged the environmental lobby, which says nuclear power is not the answer.

China plans to invest some $50 billion to build around 30 new nuclear reactors by 2020, there are investment incentives in the United States and nuclear power was back on the agenda at a summit of the Group of Eight industrialised nations in July.

The nuclear industry now feels it is on a roll -- 20 years after an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor spread a cloud of radioactivity over Europe and dealt a severe blow to the reputation of a sector long denounced by environmentalists.

"Nuclear power is in the ascendant world-wide -- less so in the (United Kingdom) than elsewhere, but that will change," said Ian Hore-Lacy of the World Nuclear Association (WNA), which aims to promote nuclear power as a sustainable energy resource.

Last week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair pledged a review of the country's climate change commitments which he said must include looking at the nuclear option.

A few days later, a government minister said Britain must decide within a year whether to invest in a new wave of nuclear power generation but added no decision had yet been made.

Scientists' warnings about global warming have increased the pressure on rich nations to cut carbon dioxide emissions.

Experts have said that the earth's temperature will rise by at least two degrees centigrade by the end of this century due to greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, putting millions of people at risk from floods and droughts.

It is difficult to tell if global warming caused hurricanes Katrina and Rita, scientists say but they forecast more unpredictable weather as the world gets hotter.


The nuclear debate has long stirred passions in Britain, home of one of the most intensively used nuclear sites in the world at Sellafield, northwestern England.

In the late 1990s, Sellafield found itself in the firing line after a report criticised safety standards at the nuclear reprocessing plant which has been operating for some 50 years.

Now, workers understand the public relations challenge.

"We have got to demonstrate that we can clean up the legacy of the past. That way we can show we can deal with the waste of the future," said Tony Price, head of the clean-up programme.

Waste has long been an industry black spot. The enriched uranium used in atomic reactors in nuclear plants is highly radioactive and spent fuel remains hazardous for 100,000 years.

"As we show we are dealing with the legacy waste, people are starting to get more confident," Price said.

The nuclear industry's most optimistic projection, from the WNA, sees global nuclear power capacity doubling to around 750 gigawatts over the next 25 years but its share of world electricity supply only edging up to 18 percent from 16 due to booming demand, expected to double between 1990 and 2020.

To put that in context, 750 gigawatts of capacity could produce up to 5.2 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity which would be enough to supply every person in the United States, Britain, Russia, France and Germany for a year.

"Between 2030 and 2050 you could see nuclear as a percentage of world electricity supply rising sharply," Hore-Lacy said. "It is not hard to envisage a scenario where nuclear could provide 50 percent of world electricity."


Environmentalists say the true costs of nuclear power are three times those stated, there is a risk terrorists could get hold of deadly plutonium, and waste is a problem for the future.

"We are not taking an ideological view ... We have analysed the pros and cons ... and we have concluded that (nuclear power) is the wrong answer," said Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth.

"A much more positive set of options are there," he said, citing a combination of energy efficiency, microgeneration, renewables, carbon capture, and more sustainable transport.

Greenpeace told the European Parliament last week that far from being the answer, nuclear power should be phased out.

"To replace one environmental catastrophe -- polluting fossil fuel power -- with another environmental disaster -- nuclear energy -- is clearly not the answer," it said.

Environmentalists want more use to be made of renewable energy like solar, wind and waves. The wind power industry says that by 2020 wind could provide 12 percent of the world's electricity, but it complains of administrative barriers.

It says wind power has no carbon emissions, employs many and is good for local economies -- although most complaints come from people who don't want wind farms in their back yards.

In Europe, Germany takes the lead with renewable energy sources supplying 10 percent of electricity while in neighbour France, nuclear power provides nearly 80 percent of electricity.

In Britain, where Blair advocates tackling global warming, renewables provide only 3 percent of electricity with 19 percent coming from nuclear power but plants are getting old, hence the need for a prompt decision on whether to build new ones.

WNA's Hore-Lacy argues that the nuclear industry has high start-up costs but low running costs and dismisses the notion that waste causes any problems.

"We have to dispel the myths, the suspicion and the fear."