Is it time to get fired up about atomic energy?

November 25, 2005

What do environmental scientists and physicists think about the mooted rebirth of nuclear power?

The UK should expand the use of nuclear power in the coming decades, according to a straw poll of environmental scientists and physicists.

While Tony Blair declared this week that "controversial and difficult"

decisions would have to be taken to help solve the country's energy crisis, most of the randomly selected academics who took part in The Times Higher 's survey believe that, on balance, the best solution resides within the atom - at least in the medium term. Fourteen of the 50 environmental scientists contacted and 12 of the 50 physicists said that reliance on nuclear power should increase in the UK, while 11 environmental scientists and four physicists were against it.

"In order to maintain our standard of living, we will very soon have no choice but to generate our electricity largely through nuclear power stations," one environmental scientist said. "Of course, new alternative technologies must be developed and pursued, renewable power sources must be exploited but, in my judgment, with our present scientific knowledge there will remain a major deficit that can be filled only by nuclear power."

The need to reduce the carbon emissions produced by using coal, gas and oil to generate power with a view to curbing man-made climate change was the principal argument put up in support of using atomic energy.

"We risk major irreversible environmental change if we do not act," one environmental scientist argued, while another added: "I can see no way forward without a much greater use of nuclear power."

One environmental scientist said that using renewable sources of energy was preferable to nuclear but that lack of government investment in wind, solar and biofuel power generation meant there was little choice today. "Given the clear disadvantages of using imported fossil fuels, using nuclear power in the medium term is the lesser of these two evils," he said.

Another said: "There will undoubtedly be a greater reliance on nuclear power as fossil fuels diminish because - unless there is a breakthrough - renewable sources will be unable to cover the shortfall. The trickier question is whether we can reduce our power requirements to minimise the growth of nuclear power, and on past evidence the answer to that is no."

Just under half the environmental scientists were opposed to nuclear power, mostly because of concerns about the disposal of radioactive waste and decontaminating redundant power stations.

One said: "Nuclear power is a purely short-term solution storing up long-term environmental problems for future generations. As a researcher in the field of acid rain caused largely by fossil-fuel combustion, I am very interested in cleaner energy technologies, and I think renewable energy sources and energy conservation are the right way forward. The reliance on nuclear power as a fallback is a risky strategy. With the expansion of nuclear power in developing economies, it is surely only a matter of time before we have another Chernobyl."

Another argued: "I am not in favour of initiating a new programme of nuclear generation until we have a foolproof and economic way of ensuring the disposal of waste and the safety of production."

A third said it was outrageous to consider expanding the production of nuclear waste until issues surrounding its disposal, not least the level of carbon emissions involved, had been resolved. He added that it would also increase the risk of a devastating terrorist attack: "In the current climate of fear due to global terrorism, the idea of building further nuclear installations in this country is sheer lunacy."

Among physicists, an overwhelming majority backed the expansion of nuclear power.

One said: "In the absence of a radical change of heart (and culture) regarding energy use, I think we have no option but to follow this pathway, given the high level of evidence now accumulated regarding the damage that our contribution to the greenhouse gas levels is doing."

A second physicist said nuclear power was the obvious successor to fossil-fuel technology on economic, capacity and environmental grounds.

"The emotional nonsense that surrounds all public debate of nuclear energy in the UK has in practice prevented the further development and exploitation of a clean non-carbon dioxide-emitting energy source for far too long," he said.

"While admitting that the past mistakes of the nuclear industry have not helped, there is no comparison between the technology, especially in waste disposal, available now compared with 30 to 40 years ago. The question is why are we still hesitating?"

A third supporter called on the Government to increase funding for renewable energy generation while increasing the country's medium-term reliance on nuclear power. "These green and unlimited energy sources represent, at present, the only viable long-term solution. We cannot afford to ignore the influence of man-made pollution on the global climate."

Among the physicists who opposed the expansion of nuclear power, one argued that a significant contribution to solving our mounting energy problems could be made not only by developing alternative technologies but also by creating a greater energy awareness. He calculated that switching every household in the UK to high-efficiency light bulbs would cost the same as a nuclear power station over 30 years but would save so much energy that five power stations could be closed.

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