Monday, October 17, 2005


Analysis: Is nuclear power the answer?.

With Prime Minister Tony Blair calling for an "open-minded" debate on the future of nuclear power in the UK, the BBC's Alex Kirby explores the pros and cons of atomic energy.

Sizewell B, the UK's newest reactor, was built in the 1980s. Nuclear power looks as if it should be the answer to all our energy conundrums, and perhaps even to climate change. It provides a steady stream of energy, and does not depend on hydrocarbon supplies from unstable regimes. It is the nearest thing we have to a non-polluting energy source, apart from natural renewables. But it still engenders massive distrust, so much that many people say it can never be part of the way to avoid a disastrously warming world. Nuclear energy has always had its proponents, their ranks swollen now by people who dislike the technology but believe it may be essential. They point out that a reactor emits virtually no carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas released from human activities (though of course building the power station produces a lot of CO2).

Supplies of cheap domestic gas are running low.
Oil and gas prices have risen dramatically.
Government aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% of 1990 levels by 2010.
Nuclear generates 20% of the UK's electricity.
All but one of UK's nuclear power stations are set to close by 2023 and no more are planned.
They say nuclear power is safe, and that the 1957 Windscale fire in the UK.
Three Mile Island in the US in 1979, and even Chernobyl have killed massively fewer people than the oil and coal industries.

Beyond that, they say modern reactors are inherently far safer than those built 20 or 30 years ago, reducing a small risk still further. Supporters say uranium prices have remained steady for decades, meaning nuclear energy is far more secure than fossil fuels can ever be. And they argue that modern nuclear power systems are far more economic than the older versions, and are therefore a good investment. And yet their opponents insist that, if nuclear power really is the answer, then we must be asking the wrong question.

There is an inevitable link between civil and military atoms, they retort. If we say we need them to stave off climate change, then so can countries like Iran and North Korea - and there is no impermeable barrier between electricity and bombs.


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