Future Power: Nuclear U-turn brings bombshell from greens

Date published: 27 February 2009

by Dr PAUL HUMPHREYS School of Applied Sciences, University of Huddersfield

In the latest in a series of Friday features, we unlock another of the secrets in the scientific world with the help of lecturers at University College Oldham’s degree partners at Huddersfield University.

reports this week that a number of prominent green activists have decided to do a U-turn and back nuclear power has come as quite a shock to a lot of people.

The principal reason given was that nuclear power was needed to combat global warming. So what has worried these once-determined green activists so much that they have had to think the unthinkable?

It seems to be a combination of things, none of them positive. Firstly there is the weight of evidence in favour of global warming, evidence that continues to build relentlessly.

There is also a suggestion of worse to come, the increase in temperature is resulting in thawing of permafrost across Siberia and the sub-arctic region.

This thawing is resulting in the release of methane that has been trapped in the permafrost for a very long time.

The problem with methane is that it is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

This methane release may result in a second wave of global warming, which follows on from the man-made, carbon dioxide phase we are observing at the moment.

Provided we do something relatively quickly, the carbon dioxide issue is something we should be able to deal with by changing the way we generate and use energy.

Once large-scale methane release occurs, there is going to be very little society can do to stop spiralling global warming.

This change in attitude towards nuclear power amongst members of the green movement reflects the complexity of the challenge presented by global warming.

The traditional adversarial style of the green politics, the anti-bomb movement and protests against hunting whales, is ill suited to complex, multifaceted issues such as global warming.

With global warming, it is clear that a solution requires a whole world approach that needs to embrace politics, commerce and environmental stakeholders.

Another darker view that may have influenced this about-face is that anyone looking around them in the UK can see that there is little evidence of a movement by the public towards a low-carbon future.

The general public in the UK are locked into a car-based, consumption lifestyle, which is energy hungry. There is little evidence of the general public taking personal responsibility for their carbon footprints.

Provided they can afford it, people will take those foreign holidays, buy that car, buy that new TV and drive to the shops. They, as I do, may have a conceptual understanding of global warming and the associated impacts of their actions.

But people carry on regardless because the immediate demands of their day-to-day personal lives are more real than the potential future risks that global warming presents. So if you cannot rely on a grass-roots conversion to the low-carbon cause, the next best thing is a larger-scale technological solution which will provide society with the electricity it needs.

There is also a suggestion that renewable energy supplies are not making sufficient inroads into energy generation to be a real alternative to fossil fuels.

That is not to say renewables do not have a part to play in a low-carbon energy future but it does not look as if they are going to play anything more than a strong supporting role.

Perhaps the green movement has been too successful in its earlier anti-nuclear campaign. In Germany, nuclear power plants have been closed early because of a prolonged and successful green campaign.

This green success has been bitter sweet since the resulting energy gap is being filled by coal-fired power stations. The situation in Austria is even more extreme where a very expensive, modern nuclear power station was never turned on; rather coal-fired power stations were brought on stream in its place.

Some of these coal-fired power stations are burning lignite, so called brown coal, more polluting that black coal.

The situation in this country is somewhat different with our first generation fleet of Mag-nox power stations coming to the end of their operational lifetime, having contributed significantly to the UK energy supply.

How the energy gap left when the last of these stations is turned off is going to be filled is still undecided. But it is likely new nuclear power stations will form part of the solution.

A government decision made last year gave the green light to new nuclear build in the UK and — the first new stations should be finished by 2020.

Unfortunately these new nuclear power stations will not be built by British companies because we do not have the skills base anymore; we have allowed it to wither away over the last few decades. It is likely that any future nuclear power stations in the UK will be built by French or American companies.

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