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Nuclear Power is Too Little, Too Late, Too Expensive

November 9, 2009 12:00 PM
In The House Magazine

Andrew StunellOur natural resources are running out. Climate change is threatening to destroy the very fabric of our planet. We need to rethink our future energy plans, and it is right that there should be a rigorous debate about how we are going to keep the lights on, and cut carbon at the same time. But nuclear is not the answer.

Nuclear power is dangerous, expensive and out-of-date. It will push out the necessary investment needed in renewable power, and in the current economic climate, it simply doesn't make sense to invest the kind of capital needed in a new generation of nuclear power for such little reward. The Government's decision to push ahead with it shows not just a lack of vision but a lack of memory, too. Huge cost over-runs, long delays in completion, serial time-outs in power production, and unquantifiable disposal methods… and that's just the safe ones.

Going for nuclear allows politicians to project the impression that they are taking difficult decisions to solve difficult problems. In reality going for nuclear simply will not solve our energy problems.

We need to meet the challenges of the 21st Century with 21st century solutions, and not fall back on those hung over from Britain's attempt at world domination in the 1950's. The UK is perfectly placed for a rapid and major expansion of clean, safe and green renewable power that would create jobs all across the UK.

With Britain now signed up to the ambitious target of cutting carbon emissions by 80% of 1990 levels by 2050 we need an energy strategy that takes carbon reduction into account. Even if Britain built ten new reactors, nuclear power would only deliver a 4% cut in carbon emissions, some time after 2025. This would barely scratch the surface.

The UK's record on renewables is lamentable by comparison with many European countries. Renewable energy currently accounts for less than 5% of UK electricity production, and is unlikely to achieve more than half of the government target of 10% for 2010 on current policies. What is urgently needed is a determined investment programme, led from the front by Government, which can put Britain in the driving seat, developing and exporting renewable technologies round the world.

Part of the 'going nuclear' case is that it would increase the UK's energy security. But in fact it will do virtually nothing to reduce our dependence on foreign gas. Within the next 10 years, as some existing coal and nuclear plants close, the electricity they currently produce will need to be met from other sources, but before any new nuclear plants could possibly come on line. The most optimistic date from the nuclear industry for one new nuclear plant to be producing electricity is 2017. But realistically a nuclear power station has never been built on time and on budget.

We also need to take into account cost. The recession, and the depreciation of sterling, has meant that even supporters admit the cost has gone up from £3.5bn to £5bn per plant. Plus there's the clean-up costs. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority estimates that the cost of cleaning up the UK's existing nuclear legacy to be in the region of £72bn, although other estimates place it as high as £160bn. That is the equivalent of a one-off "nuclear tax" of over £3,000 for everybody over 16 in the UK. With the cost of building a nuclear waste dump potentially as high as £21bn, the taxpayer is facing a minimum bill of almost £100bn to clean up nuclear waste - before we even get started on building new nuclear plants.

For less than half that cost every home in the country could reduce its energy consumption by half, cutting domestic bills and carbon emissions, soaking up unemployment, and eliminating fuel poverty.

Nuclear power will not 'keep the lights on'. Instead we'll need energy efficiency, cleaner use of fossil fuels, renewable energy and state of the art decentralised power stations. Developing renewable energy technology is essential to meeting our long- term aim of reducing carbon emissions. With proper investment into renewables, we can achieve a target of generating 40% of our energy from renewable sources by 2020. A sweeping energy efficiency programme in our homes, schools and workplaces can save money, save jobs and save carbon.

The Liberal Democrats have provided principled opposition on Trident, Climate Change, the Economy, and Iraq. And we've been proved right each time. We're right on nuclear power too, and I am proud to say we aren't going to be suckered into accepting the sloppy and self-serving talk of the nuclear lobby, even if both Labour and the Conservatives have fallen for it yet again.

Nuclear power is simply too little, too late, and too expensive.