Science Questions

Can we justify the dangers of nuclear power?

Sun, 25th Jul 2010

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Beverley, Norwich asked:

Well the first thing that Iíd like to say is we love your program completely.


My question is this: Can we justify an involvement with nuclear power in the UK when we have the greatest potential for renewables in Europe?


If we think about offshore and onshore wind power, tidal power and offshore barrages, we have a fantastic potential with a very low level of risk. If we compare that to nuclear power, we have to look at the question of cost. Without government subsidies, the cost per unit of electricity generated by nuclear power is not cost-effective.


We also have to look at safety; we have a terrorist risk, we have health concerns of cancers with far higher clusters around existing power stations, and we have an accident risk, for instance in Chernobyl.


We also have to look at disposal of spent uranium. With all due respect to the spokesperson last week, it is arguable that it is not safe to dispose of spent uranium; the half life of spent uranium exceeds the capacity of metal that we know to survive in corrosive water.


Ben: - Some compelling arguments there, thank you very much, Beverly.  Itís a certainly one for you Dave, you're our physics guru.  You know a lot more about nuclear power than I do.  What are the arguments in its favour?

Dave: - It basically depends how bad you think burning coal is.  Burning coal actually releases more radiation into the environment than nuclear power ever has, even including things such as Chernobyl, because thereís a load of radioactive elements in coal.  You burn it, they get released.  Thereís no way of constraining it.  Also, burning coal produces lots of carbon dioxide which is bad for all sorts of other reasons including the greenhouse effect, etc.  Thereís also issues with acid rain which have been largely improved, but weíre getting huge amounts of our energy at the moment from fossil fuels. 

Nuclear power is a very, very dependable form of power, you know itís going to work.  If you replace it with something like wind power, I think itís going to be very, very difficult to supply the amount of energy weíre using in this country using just renewable sources.  Thereís a professor at Cambridge, David MacKay who worked out that in order to produce all the energy we use in this country using wind power, you'd have to completely cover the whole of the coast with miles of wind turbines to generate that amount of power. 

Nuclear power does have a lot of disadvantages, but it does have the advantage that you know itís there.  Itís predictable.  You can store the energy.  You're not dependent on foreign sources of energy.  So, if someone stops supplying you with uranium, itís very easy to store 10 years worth of power. 

Whilst in the long run, it might not be what we want to be using - it depends how dangerous you think radiation is.  If you got a heavily radiated area like Chernobyl, it might not be particularly good for humans, but actually, if you look at things like the amounts of biodiversity there, how well the animals are doing, itís a lot better than anywhere humans are.  Humans are a lot worse for the environment than radiation is!

There are all sorts of positives and negatives to it.  On balance, I think itís probably worth using at least until we develop something better.

Ben: - Beverly, I appreciate that we may not have completely turned you into a fan of nuclear but does that help, hearing some of the positive arguments?

Beverly: - Itís certainly interesting to see it that way round.  I think your colleague was not addressing the issue of renewables as much as existing alternatives.  Yes, weíve got to look at how do we bridge for the next 30 years, and how we use electricity, you know, what sources are we going to use.

Ben: -  Well itís certainly something that weíll have to keep an eye on.  Thank you ever so much for your call. 


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The current model of chucking more and more stuff into the atmosphere will not hold. Personally, I'm even more concerned about the short term effects that increased acidity is having on marine life than warming trends. The entire marine food chain could suddenly collapse.

In the relative near term, I think we only have two options.

1) Drastically cut back on the consumption of all fossil fuels by drastically reducing our total energy consumption.

2) Drastically cut back on the consumption of all fossil fuels by replacing fossil fuels with nuclear fuels.

Option 1 has profound socioeconomic implications that I don't think anyone will stomach.

Option 2 has some long term risks, but they pale into insignificance compared to the immediate, and highly unpleasant effects of option 1.

I'm not saying we should not continue to harvest renewable energy sources. We should, but let's get our heads out of the sand and stop pretending they are the answer to our problem

Geezer, Tue, 27th Jul 2010

I 100% agree with geezer. In the UK there has been years of indecision by politicians too afraid to alienate potential voters. Somebody has to bite the bullet as I don't see any magic solution on the horizon. Nuclear energy is far from ideal but is the only viable option in the short/medium term. The best answer is to pursue multiple sources of energy; there are plusses and minusses for all of them. graham.d, Wed, 28th Jul 2010

I think the amount of indecision in the US has been even greater than in the UK  Geezer, Thu, 29th Jul 2010

  I'm leaning toward the idea we need nuclear in the short term, but it's interesting you didn't address the problem of nuclear waste.  If all our nuclear waste found its way into the environment, would that make it more of a danger than coal?  You state how many wind turbines you would need to provide an adequate amount of energy, but are there other viable alternative energy sources (like harnessing the energy of the tides, etc.)? 
  And another problem with alternative energies is that some may be viable in one area of world, but not in others, while nuclear will work anywhere. punksatawnyphil, Sun, 22nd Aug 2010

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