Conference Report

Finally, its official

28 July 2005

At a debate in London on 19 April, the motion that “Nuclear energy must power our future” won through, albeit without an overall majority. Supporters of nuclear are right to take it as a victory, despite the fact that the advocates against the motion convinced more of the undecided. By Jeremy Gordon

The debate was held on 19 April at the Royal Geographical Society in London’s Kensington and was chaired by Martyn Lewis, famous in the UK for a long periods of high-profile news work for the BBC.

The assertion that “Nuclear energy must power our future” was supported by Bruno Comby, founder of the Association of Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy; the late Bishop Hugh Montefiore, a trustee of Friends of the Earth until the day he wrote that nuclear should be used to combat carbon emissions; and Lord Parkinson, who served as energy minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government. It was countered by Zac Goldsmith, editor of The Ecologist magazine; Mycle Schneider, executive director of WISE-Paris; and Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth.

Speakers took the podium presenting their reasoning for their positions in turn. Pro-nuclear advocates in general took the stance that every valid technology should be employed to get the results we need: a lot of power without a lot of carbon. Their opponents had varying positions, ranging from Juniper’s devotion to wind farms to Schneider’s analysis of the global lifespans of nuclear plants and the practicalities in maintaining a constant (high) share of generation.

Schneider, who was by far the most effective anti-nuclear speaker, showed that the world’s current nuclear fleet will age and be finally shutdown in a great wave centred on the year 2025. He said that within 15 years of 2025, 167 units will be shutdown and within 20 years of that date some 280 will close. Even though modern units generate far more than the earliest, the task of replacing that amount of capacity is a tall order and Schneider questioned the ability of the nuclear industry to grow enough to meet the challenge (see article on page 36).

Schneider’s analysis also showed that unit lifespans have so far averaged 20.7 years – rather less than the 30-40 years claimed by the industry. To a non-nuclear expert such an argument might appear to punch a hole in industry plans, but those in the industry appreciate the experimental nature of the early units’ design and the fact that a large number of earlier models are still going strong. What’s more, many plants have had their lifespans extended beyond what was anticipated for their designs. However, the fact remains that estimates of useful lifespans of 30, 40 or 50 years remain untested.

Another analysis presented by Schneider concerned the proportion of the world’s nations that exploit nuclear energy. According to figures, only 15% of countries that are members of the United Nations use nuclear energy and, of those, the biggest six users generate 75% of the total.

So nuclear nations are in the minority, but so what? This depends greatly on how you count mankind: the nuclear club might be a minority of nations, but that club contains heavyweights like China, India, Russia and the USA in addition to France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, the UK and Ukraine. Even without counting some nuclear nations with large populations, the countries listed above account for about 50% of the world’s 6.4 billion population. Not exactly a minority. But Schneider’s main point appeared to be that, with nuclear able only to provide a fraction of total energy for a fraction of the world, its contribution to battling climate change can only ever be small. In such a case, why should we bother to continue with it, he asked.

It’s a fact that in the short to medium term, nuclear’s effect on climate change cannot be very great. Only 25% of CO2 emissions come from electricity generation, as Juniper pointed out. The transport sector is the biggest offender in UK emissions and is the only emissions group to have been growing over the last ten or so years. How to tackle transport emissions was not covered in detail by the debate. In the long term, finding an alternative fuel for the greedy mankind’s car fleet is going to be a serious challenge. Electric cars have been just beyond the horizon for decades although we now expect to power them with hydrogen fuel cells. Where the hydrogen would come from was not addressed by speakers.

There are, of course a range of technologies and practices that can be employed to generate more environmentally friendly power: rooftop solar cells or expanding the use of combined heat and power. And of course, the ‘perfect’ green energy source: wind power, for which green advocates called for more investment and subsidy. These calls are made, noted Bishop Hugh Montefiore despite wind power’s failure to mature to economic electricity generation even after thousands of years of use.

Montefiore quoted a report from New Scientist magazine which said mankind stands at the edge of an abyss. He repeatedly said that now is not the time for squabbling over how to tackle climate change, now is the time to act. This threat is so great and so urgent that we need to use every technology at our disposal – he called on the audience to favour the motion in support of nuclear: “For God’s sake, vote for posterity!”

In what was to be one of his last appearances before his death on 14 May at the age of 85, Montefiore managed to raise several big laughs. He reminded the audience that green concerns have put a brake on Britain’s plans for a nuclear build programme, but it makes little difference as nuclear-generated power is simply bought from France. A similar situation is also true of Germany and Italy.

Lord Parkinson’s address was very down-to-earth, as one would expect from a former Conservative minister. He too called for action, saying there is very little time to waste and we should simply get on with solving this problem of carbon emissions. In one move, Parkinson summed up the UK waste situation and countered Juniper and Goldsmith’s arguments concerning waste: “Waste is perfectly manageable. The only problem is that someone has to take a decision.” He continued to say that an aide told him on his first day as energy minister that “if Cornwall was a nuclear station, we’d have to close it down.” Cornwall is the rural southwestern peninsula of England that enjoys the best weather in the UK – as well as the highest background radiation due to its granite composition.

It has often been noted by members of industry that they will be held accountable for their statements while green campaigners will not, enabling the latter to make wild, unsubstantiated claims. The audience was treated to two perfect examples of this. Zac Goldsmith, said that he found the spent fuel pond at the UK’s Sizewell B plant worrying. He said the pool could drain, leaving the fuel to overheat and that the he found idea of constantly being 20 minutes from a nuclear explosion quite troubling. Goldsmith was picked up on this point during the question session and criticised for equating a spent fuel fire with Hiroshima. Goldsmith said that in his mind there wasn’t much of a difference between the two. The distribution of laughter revealed the nuclear-experienced people in the room. One may mock Goldsmith for a poor understanding of nuclear science, but it’s certainly true to say that in the minds of most of the public, there is little difference between one nuclear event and another. This barrier will simply never be overcome.

The second example of irresponsible claims came from Tony Juniper. During the question session he was asked what percentage of Britain’s surface must be covered by wind turbines to source 20% of the UK’s electricity needs. His answer was 8km2 – the area that must be occupied by the footprints of the turbine towers and associated access roads. So that’s fine as long as you don’t need any space for the turbine blades to go round!

Bruno Comby had previously told the audience that the windfarm equivalent of a modern reactor in the south of France would be a row of 2/3MWe wind turbines 300m apart in a straight line all the way from Genoa to Barcelona.

As is normal in the nuclear debate in general, anti-nuclear worries were mainly centred on the demons of radiation, long-lived waste and the ghastly spectre of the Chernobyl accident. Schneider deserves a medal for getting his point across without raising these non-issues.

Pro-nuclear views of course, were based on the facts that, despite the obvious toxic drawbacks of nuclear, you get an amazing amount of energy for an acceptable risk – and at the moment, the risks of not employing nuclear seem to grow ever more unacceptable.

Nuclear energy debate Nuclear energy debate

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