David King, government chief scientific adviser, argued at the launch of National Science Week this week that the United Kingdom should invest in new nuclear power stations to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
This flies in the face of the conclusions reached by many authorities (including the Carbon Trust, the Energy Savings Trust, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the Cabinet Office's Performance and Innovation Unit) that suggest that substantial cuts in emissions could be made by a mix of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies.
Non-scientific factors, however, come into play here. Alternative low-carbon technologies, although economically attractive, are as diffuse as the stakeholders involved and concerted action is needed to develop them. Nuclear power benefits from being generated in large central-station plant that can be readily coupled to the electricity grid. The disadvantages are radioactive emissions and very long-range waste-storage requirements.
It is unfortunate that Professor King should stray outside the realm of science. Balancing the positives and negatives of energy options necessitates contributions from many disciplines and perspectives. For the chief scientific adviser to engage in the wider energy debate misrepresents the expertise of his office.
There is a tendency for many natural scientists to believe that devices that are technologically advanced must be worthwhile per se. But all technologies result in desired and unwanted effects.
New nuclear power plants are not competitive in the liberalised energy market, as is the case with several of the newer renewable energy options. We therefore need to devise a level playing field in which alternative energy sources should develop and compete. If the UK government decides to penalise fossil fuels or to support low-carbon technologies, then similar measures should be applied across the board.
This would give a boost to nuclear power. But the downside is that nuclear power bears the full cost of its operations, including those associated with plant decommissioning and radioactive waste disposal and storage.
Faculty of engineering and design
University of Bath