Back to the future: the greening of nuclear energy

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Ed Miliband is pressing the case for nuclear energy as the clean solution to satisfying Britain’s future energy needs, headlined by today’s announcement proposing ten new nuclear power stations.

Whilst there is no denying that we need to replace our carbon-based energy dependency with clean alternatives. I can’t help wondering; just how clean is nuclear energy?

“New plants in the UK have never been built without massive cost to the taxpayer and a lethal legacy of toxic waste.”

The government tell us that they are busy building a deep earth repository for our nuclear waste. Yet somehow living on top of all that radioactive detrious does not fill me with confidence in our future well being.

The fact is that the spent fuels from our nuclear reactors will not be ‘safe’ for many generations.; surely we are just storing up a toxic legacy to compound our carbon loading of the atmosphere.

And we can only guess at the turmoil changing weather patterns and rising seas levels can bring during the lifespan of an operating reactor. A position that appears geographically safe now may be in jeapordy sooner than we know.

Indeed the UK government has recently rejected EDF’s plans for a nuclear reactor at Dungeness becuase of environmental and flooding risks.

That decision raised another issue quite distinct from conservation and ecology. The proposed planning fast track programme also poses a democratic issue. In an effort to speed the decision making process, planning decisions are to be made by a non-elective committee, not our parliament and that is a major concern. How accountable is this body? And to whom? Although they will seek public input they are bound by it in no way, shape or form; since their power is not derived from the public approval of their actions.

Perhaps predictably the announcement brought mixed reactions.

“A new generation of nuclear power stations will be a colossal mistake regardless of where they are built”,

exclaimed Simon Hughes, Lib-Dem’s Energy spokesperson.

“New plants in the UK have never been built without massive cost to the taxpayer and a lethal legacy of toxic waste.”

Whilst, Nuclear Industry Association CEO, Keith Parker told Reuters:

“This is a key step forward in the drive to de-carbonize our economy. A streamlined planning process will help the development of an array of low-carbon technologies, including nuclear, which in turn can do so much to combat climate change.”

Green Party leader, Caroline Lucas MEP, roundly condemned the policy saying:

“We need safe renewable power, coupled with a nationwide push for energy efficiency, not Ed Miliband’s idea of new nuclear power stations. The government still has no solution for the massive amount of yearly high-level waste that ten new nuclear power stations will produce (200 tonnes per year). Such waste will cost tens of billions of pounds a year to manage, money that could go towards clean and renewable energy.”

“We don’t need nuclear or new coal plants. With energy efficiency, and proven technologies such as wind, solar and combined heat and power, we can meet Britain’s energy needs, create hundreds of thousands of green jobs and slash emissions”.

Whether that rosy vision is true or not I’m still sceptical that nuclear energy is the panacea that Labour would have us believe.

Clean energy I welcome. The foresight to build now for future generations I welcome.

But the downsides of nuclear energy remain too grave to be glossed over. Not least the high cost of production, that already have energy companies calling for a carbon-tax on coal and oil power stations.

The disposal of the toxic waste and the legacy it leaves is too high a prices to pay. There simply remain to many unanswered issues.

We need the answers, but who is asking the questions?