To give up on nuclear power or give it a kickstart? That was the choice facing the British government. But it was really a decision made for them. Britain has a dozen nuclear power stations, all dating from the 1960s and ’70s, and all showing their age. This decaying infrastructure is trying to handle ever- increasing demand.
The ruling Labour Party once described nuclear power as the least-attractive energy option, but the rising cost of oil and new emissions squeezes have left ministers with little choice but to invest.
Renewable energies like wind and solar power are promoted as the way forward. But the investment is seen as too costly and the return too meagre at the moment for it to be a viable alternative.
Nearly a fifth of Britain’s electricity presently comes from nuclear power. That is close to the worldwide norm. But the European average is twice that. Of the 27 EU member states, 15 have nuclear power stations. They are particularly widespread in France, where three-quarters of all power is nuclear. In Germany, it is only about a third, and nuclear power is on its way out following a public outcry.
But 34 nuclear plants are under construction around the world. The biggest is being built in Finland. The three- billion-euro Olkiluoto facility will be ready by 2011 and it was the inspiration for the new British plants.
The public resistance in Germany comes from the waste generated by reactors. Nuclear power might be relatively clean – it produces less C02. But, as John Sauven, Greenpeace’s executive director explains, it leaves behind material which poses a huge risk and is very costly to dispose of.
“Replacing for example 10 gas-fired power stations with 10 nuclear power stations would reduce our emissions by about 4%,” he said. “It is a very small amount of reduction in CO2 emissions, at enormous costs, with enormous risks and a lot of consequences for future generations who will have to deal with all the nuclear waste.”
For now, the only long-term way of dealing with toxic nuclear waste is to bury it, but that is not thought fail-safe, and experts say it could remain radioactive for a million years.