The UK's chief scientific adviser, David King, has reiterated his support for nuclear power

Katharine Sanderson, LondonUK

The UK’s chief scientific adviser, David King, has reiterated his support for nuclear power. 

King addressed a meeting at the Royal Society (RS), convened to discuss the future of energy. Atmospheric carbon levels, currently at 381 ppm and rising, were high on the agenda. ’We know we are going to pass the 400 ppm point,’ King said. ’We have enough coal on the planet to drive CO2 levels to well over 1000 ppm, even 2000 ppm,’ he warned. 

The global appetite for oil is currently 88 million barrels a day. But at current rates of growth King predicts that by 2030 China alone will need 100 million barrels a day. ’That can’t happen,’ he said. Urgent global action is needed and must include fiscal measures, ’It doesn’t make much sense to see this as a technology problem alone,’ King said. 

King supports the rebuilding of decommissioned nuclear power plants in the UK to reduce dependence on fossil fuels in the next 15 years. This support received criticism from some scientists at the meeting, one who described nuclear power as an ’irrelevance’ when compared to renewable energy sources. ’I simply don’t agree that as a current technology [nuclear power] is something we can afford to put to one side at this point in time,’ said King. ’I believe we need one further generation of nuclear fission power stations.’ 

Sue Ion, from the British nuclear energy society agrees. If decommissioned nuclear sites are not replaced, the UK will lose a major source of carbon-free energy, she said. Nuclear power is being developed internationally, regardless of the UK’s stance, she said. And in India and China this development is ’aggressive’. The UK must deal with public concerns about nuclear power and waste. ’The debate over the coming months is going to be interesting as well as crucial.’ 

Chris Llewellyn Smith, director of the UK atomic energy authority’s Culham division, is responsible for the UK’s thermonuclear fusion programme. Fusion power, if successfully developed, is one of only a few technologies capable of producing all the UK’s electricity, he said. But this technology is 50 years away from commercial use. In the meantime, fossil fuels, including oil, will still be burnt, Llewellyn Smith told Chemistry World. ’We’re going to burn it [oil], but we need to burn it as slowly as we can,’ he said.     

Llewellyn Smith is involved in the international tokomak experimental reactor (ITER) project, being built in France. ITER is a huge plasma torus, which works at over 100 million?C, providing enough energy for tritium and deuterium to collide, producing helium and a large amount of energy. Safety problems are almost negligible with this technology, said Llewellyn Smith. ’I’d rather live next to a fusion power station than a coal power station.’