Do we need Nuclear Power?

27 March 2012

Interview with

Ron Bailey, Parliamentary consultant of the association of the conservation of energy, Professor Martin Freer, Director of Birmingham Centre for Nuclear Education and Research.

We have a challenge to supply our growing demand for electricity whilst reducing our carbon emissions.  But is nuclear power the only way to go?  The answer is far from clear-cut.  So to discuss some of the issues, Birmingham University organised a debate held in London this week. We sent Meera Senthilingam along to meet Ron Bailey, Parliamentary consultant of the association of the conservation of energy.  But first, she spoke to Professor Martin Freer, Director of Birmingham Centre for Nuclear Education and Research......

Martin -   To my mind, there are two reasons why we need nuclear power - the first is, to do with climate change and the second is energy independence.  The climate change issue is that we need to reduce our CO2 emissions, greenhouse gas emissions, by 80 % compared to 1990 levels by 2050.  

So, you need to work out how you arrive at 20 % on that sort of timescale and a good reference marker for that is the work of the committee on climate change. Now, what they've done is looked at the energy portfolio that we have now and potential energy portfolios for the future and they looked at a number of different options.  Starting with the obvious one which is renewable sources, they tried to work out what is the maximum amount of energy that you could get, the maximum amount of power that you could get, from those renewable sources, and it comes to about 40 % of our energy budget on the timescale that we need.  

In addition to that, you could have something like 20 % of gas, so things like wind turbines, they need backup energy supplies and that would come from gas generation.  You need then another 40 % coming from nuclear power.

Meera -   And is nuclear able to provide that 40%?

Martin -   So at the moment, we have 15 % of energy generation through nuclear power.  To get up to 40 % I think is a real challenge.  The ability to build enough nuclear power stations, the number that we might need, will exceed capability at the moment to build reactors.

Meera -   Ron, what are your thoughts on this need for nuclear power to meet this extra 40% of energy that we need in the future?

power plantRon -   The government did a lot of modelling about how to get both the CO2 reductions that Martin refers to, to have 80 % by 2050, and to keep the lights on, and that modelling shows very conclusively that we don't need nuclear power to do it.  There are at least 8 ways of doing it without nuclear power.  That involves investment in - firstly, energy efficiency because the best solution is saving the energy you don't use in the first place and then renewables - wind, offshore wind, onshore wind, solar PV, biomass, and combined heat and power, and obviously, carbon capture and storage.

Meera -   Martin?

Martin -   I think the biggest issue whether one can understand energy savings, energy efficiencies, and as yet, I haven't seen substantial amount of research into the degree at which one can reduce from the current levels of energy consumption to the level at which one would need to reach in order to achieve the CO2 emission's targets.

Meera -   What is the actual issue with energy today in terms of demand?

Martin -   So if one looks back over time, so go back to the 1970s and look at how much demand has increased between 1970 and now, energy demand, electricity demand has gone up about 1 % per year.  But if that linear trend continues then we are going to see over the next 40 years or so an increase of 40 % in our energy demand.  At the moment, we cannot meet that in terms of the kind of capacity that we have, energy generation.  One would need to make very dramatic energy savings just to offset that potential increase in demand.

Meera -   Ron, for this increase in demand that's going to happen in the coming years, are these alternatives to nuclear plausible to actually meet such demands?

Ron -   The government says that they're figures it both on robust analysis.  So the answer is yes.

Meera -   But what about, as well as becoming more efficient with our energy, the actual alternatives and other renewable sources of energy?

Ron -   Yes, of course.  It's absolutely right.  We can't just say we have to generate and again, the government's evidence shows that these will provide enough heat and electricity to keep the lights on and to keep us warm in our homes.

Martin -   One way of putting this into context is to take the evaluation done by David MacKay and he's looked at all the countries around the world to evaluate the amount of power per meter squared that you would need to generate.  And for the UK, it's 1 watt per meter squared and then you look at the amount of power that you could generate from a wind turbine.  It's about 2 to 3 watts per meter squared which means that to solve the UK's problems, you would need half to a third of the UK covered with wind turbines.

Meera -   And how does nuclear compare to that?

Martin -   Nuclear of course has a very high power density.  You can get a gigawatt out of 10s of square meters so the power density is much, much higher.

Meera -   Martin, just to focus in a little bit on nuclear power itself and some of the concerns regarding the safety of future reactors, the actual designs of these future reactors, and the question of disposing waste in these.  Are these all being taken into account?

Martin -   So you're right.  Safety is very important and in fact, the nuclear industry has, surprisingly, a very good safety record.  If you look at the types of power station which have been designed for the future - so EPR and AP1000 - they're completely different in their concept of safety.  They have a lot of passive safety features.  This is using natural processes like convection to take over if an accident should happen inside a reactor.

Meera -   And Ron, what are your thoughts on this?

Ron -   On the issue of safety, I mean, the nuclear industry has been claiming it's very safe for years and years, and years, and thankfully, there's some truth in that, but I can mention words like Fukushima, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.  So, you know, it's not as safe as it's claimed.

Martin -   Okay, so to put it into some context, if one looked at Three Mile Island and looked at the number of people who actually lost their lives through that accident, well it wasn't any. And indeed if one looked at Fukushima as well, how many people died in the nuclear part of the event?  Well, none.  How many people died in the tsunami?  Well, over 18,000.  The worst nuclear incident, as Ron mentioned, was Chernobyl.  Again, about 28 people died in that incident and subsequently, the latest United Nation report in 2011 showed that only about 15 people got cancer, thyroid cancer in the intervening year.  So, it's rather crass but if one was to try and quantify how good that record is against other energy generators, then nuclear power is something like a hundred times more safer than gas and a thousand times more safe than coal.

Meera -   To summarise, what should we be doing next?  Martin...

Martin -   I believe very strongly that nuclear power is part of the future.  I think the government need to look carefully about the economic conditions, the political conditions to encourage companies.  It's a big gamble for companies to invest in nuclear power.  One may need to make sure that those conditions are right.

Meera -   Ron...

Ron -   The next step is to fully investigate the potential for energy affinity and energy saving which hasn't been done and as it's the cheapest, we should do that now. Then we should start to invest in long term renewable and low carbon solutions such as wind power, offshore wind, some onshore wind, biomass combined heat and power and carbon capture storage.  

We can supply all our energy needs and reduce CO2 by those methods without nuclear power which will be more costly.

Ben -   Ron Bailey from the Association to the Conservation of Energy and before him, Professor Martin Freer from the University of Birmingham.  You can find the report Ron was talking about on the Department of Energy ad Climate change website to help you make up your own mind.

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