The case for nuclear

In the search for low-carbon energy supply options, nuclear is under reconsideration as part of a diversified mix. There are those who advocate that nuclear is, at present, the only safe large-scale energy source available for base load power. Soothing corporate advocacy campaigns claim that nuclear is clean, affordable and reliable. Industry advocates have been joined by some environmentalists, including Stewart Brand, author of The Whole Earth Catalogue, Gaia guru James Lovelock, and Patrick Moore, formerly of Greenpeace. They claim that the risks from failing to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide outweigh those associated with the use of nuclear power.

Research by the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concludes that throughout the life cycle nuclear power emits low amounts of carbon dioxide, between 7g per kilowatt hour and 22g per kilowatt hour - an amount similar to the carbon dioxide emissions from wind power and considerably less from fossil-fuelled plants.

The oft-quoted interdisciplinary Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study on the future of nuclear power concluded that the nuclear option should be retained in a carbon emissions management strategy 'precisely because it is an important carbon free source of power' (Ansolabehere et al, 2003). The study focused on analysing the critical problems that would have to be overcome. A recent Inter-Academy Council report came to a similar conclusion that 'as a low carbon resource, nuclear power can continue to make a significant contribution to the world's energy portfolio in the future' (Inter-Academy Council, 2007). This panel also introduced the caveat that there were major concerns to be addressed.

For many years, the subject of nuclear power was peripheral to the international climate change negotiations. However, during 2007, the IPCC in its fourth assessment declared that nuclear power 'has the potential for an expanded role as a cost effective mitigation option' (IPCC, 2007) and identified constraining factors. The UNFCCC estimated that to achieve the necessary shift away from fossil fuels, the 'investment in nuclear generation would need to increase from $15 billion to $40 billion, including an additional $11 billion investment in developing countries'.

The UK has just concluded a consultation on the role of nuclear power within that government's energy strategy. Their consultation document is illustrative of increasing government initiatives to articulate the case for considering nuclear power in the context of tackling climate change and energy security issues. Their preliminary view is that new nuclear power stations could make an important contribution. And although it is the sovereign right of each country in the European Union to make its own energy supply decisions, the European Commission has recognized the need to have a platform for debate among researchers, industry and environment ministers.

With the aim of better informing the debate, several reports have been issued recently. Illustrative are the following three examples from 2007. A report from the Oxford Research Group, an independent non-governmental organization in the UK, suggests that claims about the impact nuclear power could have upon global carbon emissions should be reviewed and questions whether or not the security risks could be managed (Barnaby and Kemp, 2007).

Charles Ferguson addressed the risks and benefits of nuclear energy on behalf of the Council on Foreign Relations in the US. He also examines the validity and feasibility of a significant nuclear contribution to reducing global warming and the potential dangers associated with worldwide proliferation of this energy source (Ferguson, 2007). Third, The Ethical Funds Company of Canada prepared a report entitled One Is Too Many (Ethical Funds Company, 2007) for shareholders. It reviews the potential for revival of nuclear as a primary strategy to fight climate change and concludes that there are better options. As nuclear power contributes only about 2 per cent to total world energy needs (as opposed to that provided), dramatic and rapid increase in new build would be needed to make a significant contribution in climate change mitigation. Critics conclude that nuclear power does too little, too late, with unacceptable risk.

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