UK nuclear: Walking into darkness with eyes screwed shut

'Watching brief' will be difficult when lights go out

Comment So the House of Lords Science and Technology committee has reported on the state of the UK's nuclear industry and government plans for carrying it forward: and, as anyone who follows these matters would expect, the noble lords have reported on a situation of total, shambolic chaos.

That chaos has come about, not by unavoidable circumstance or by carelessness, but almost with malice aforethought. Successive governments have failed, pretty much on purpose, to give any clear message on nuclear power and have maintained pathetically low levels of research funding into it – lower, indeed, than some nations which don't even have an active nuclear sector.

The facts on nuclear are pretty clear. It is far and away the safest means of generating a given amount of electrical energy known to man – regardless of cretinous media coverage of Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island (health consequences: nil, 56 deaths and nil respectively). If you want to generate some power and don't want to cause needless deaths and injuries, you should use nuclear.

Nuclear, in fact, generates almost all the low-carbon and strategically secure energy at the UK's disposal: approximately 80 per cent of it, in fact, according to the Lords' report. The only other secure low-carbon source which can even be discerned in the figures is wind, which is already driving up electricity bills very uncomfortably, and which makes a contribution less than a quarter the size of that from our small and aged nuclear fleet.

And one has to remember that most of our electricity is still generated by burning coal, oil and gas: and electricity accounts for only a tenth of our total energy consumption. The other 90 per cent – transport, heating, industries etc – is almost entirely fossil-powered. Nuclear electricity accounts for less than 2 per cent of our energy use, and wind (big daddy of UK renewables) is utterly – totally, completely – insignificant.

And yet the government says it will cut carbon emissions by 80 per cent by the year 2050. This is to be done by largely electrifying surface transport, heating, industry etc. Even if we also become enormously more stingy with energy – bear in mind the only way this can be done is raising its price, meaning a big hit to the lifestyle of anyone who isn't rich and a probable departure overseas of much of our remaining manufacturing – we will need immense amounts more electricity, not less.

At the lowest, most poverty-stricken level, UK plc would require say seven times as much electricity as it now does – and pretty much all of it would need to be low carbon. Wind could certainly supply some of this, at tremendous cost, but realistically the bulk of it would have to be nuclear. Even the government states an aspiration to get 40 per cent of UK electricity from nuclear.

In other words the government's stated aspirations call for an expansion of nuclear capacity by not less than 17 times over the present level – most probably much, much more. And yet we learn that ministers have more or less washed their hands of it (they describe this a "taking a watching brief"). They will let the current aged generations of British nuclear scientists and engineers retire without replacement, perhaps buying in some French kit and expertise to maintain a largely moribund capability, meanwhile hoping wishfully that some miracle will happen.

But if one doesn't – no shale + carbon capture, no fusion, no miracle algae more efficient than solar panels to the rescue – we'll wind up with the worst of all worlds: expensive electricity subject to frequent blackouts, high carbon emissions, massive energy imports from suspect regimes all at once.

When we could have a clean, safe, largely electric Britain fuelled by uranium from our good friends in Canada or Australia – many years' national supply of which could be kept in reserve in a few small buildings here in the UK. With electricity abundant rather than kept artificially expensive to discourage its use, we could even use it to make hydrocarbons out of wastes or sequestered carbon. And almost nobody would need to die keeping astonishingly dangerous and primitive coal mines, wind farms or gas fields running to do it.

The Lords' committee report can be read here. ®

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