Nuclear power needs to be among the options considered to reduce greenhouse gas emissions

Nuclear power was obviously considered to be too risky a subject to mention during a general election. But now the Labour government has won a third term in office in the UK, there is much speculation that the government will soon make an announcement about nuclear power.   

The chairman of British Nuclear Fuels has said a Labour government will build a new generation of nuclear power stations, while The Guardian reports that energy minister Alan Johnson is being urged to consider the ’nuclear issue’ shortly but that the government’s chief scientist David King has said reports of an immediate return to nuclear power are premature. 

Supporters consider nuclear power as the only viable means by which the UK can meet its tough targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. 

The government has a target of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2010 to meet the UK’s committments under the Kyoto Protocol. It also has a longer term target, based on a recommendation by the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent by 2050. 

Is the UK on target? No. The government has admitted that with current policies it will make a 14 per cent, not 20 per cent, cut in carbon dioxide emissions by 2010. 

And a study by Oxford Economic Research Associates (Oxera) says that , if emissions continue to fall at the rate they have between 1990 and 2003 (5.6 per cent), the 2050 target will not be met. Oxera has calculated that with an annual rate of economic growth at 2.25 per cent, carbon productivity (the ratio of energy output to carbon emissions) will have to average a 4.2 per cent compound annual growth rate for the government to meet its targets. The government estimates it to be 2.25 per cent. 

This leaves a gap, which Oxera says cannot be closed solely through the government’s current plan for 20 per cent of electricity to be supplied from renewable resources, largely wind power, by 2020. 

The Royal Society is also concerned. It has warned that unless the rate of development of both renewable and energy efficiency measures make up for the capacity lost as the current nuclear power plants are closed down, the UK will become more reliant on fossil fuels and carbon dioxide emissions will go up rather than down. 

What are the options? The government could achieve its targets either by replacing exisiting nuclear power stations, through a programme of carbon sequestration (the ability of vegetation to take up gaseous carbon and convert it to solid organic matter), or energy efficiency, or perhaps all three. 

The government has put climate change high on the agenda for its leadership of the G8 and the European Union this year. It now needs to ensure it has a programme in place that will achieve its own targets.   

All options for reducing greenhouse emissions need to be discussed, including nuclear power. 

Karen Harries-Rees, editor