Nuclear energy in the UK: The time is now

Published on Friday, 20 July 2012 11:16
Written by Professor Martin Freer

For years now Britain has faced issues such as global warming and security of energy supply. Although the need to reshape our energy portfolio has grown ever more plain and pressing, the prevailing response has been a growing sense of drift.

Successive governments have contrived to allow UK energy policy in general and our approach to nuclear energy in particular to remain beset by a dearth of clarity, a history of entrenched views and a paucity of informed public debate. Now, with concerns over carbon targets, fuel poverty and proposed new nuclear power stations increasingly to the fore, it is more obvious than ever that the problem will not simply go away.

Of course, nuclear energy's ability to polarise opinion is well known. The events at Japan's Fukushima plant last year inevitably served to underline as much, with the likes of Germany abandoning nuclear almost at a stroke and the likes of France at pains to reiterate the technology's potential as a path to sustainability.

Britain, meanwhile, dithers. Naturally, decisions that will have implications and repercussions for decades are not to be rushed; but there comes a point when the time to act is overdue.

There is a compelling case for making nuclear energy a key element of Britain's programme of low-carbon energy generation. In fact, there are many arguments for rebuilding the UK as a nuclear nation. Before that can happen, however, several hurdles must be negotiated.

Chief among them is the need to recognise the simple fiscal reality of the situation. The private sector will not remain engaged in the process of building new nuclear power stations without the support of government. The financial burden is too vast for utilities to bear in the absence of backing in the form of taxpayers' money.

Extending this theme, it is vital that policymakers and industry work together to produce a shared "roadmap". The resulting strategy must be both coherent and long-term. Ideally, it should envisage an elapse of at least a century between the initial planning and the final decommissioning of new nuclear plants, as well as the management of radioactive waste and the stewardship of disposal sites.

We also have to accept that Britain's current nuclear capacity is in many ways critically deficient. We were once a world-leader in developing fission technologies. Our research levels are now sub-critical. To reflect the strategic importance of the nuclear sector we need to reinforce R&D budgets – and we also need an extensive programme of government-led training and education to ensure a suitably skilled workforce is in place if and when a build programme commences.

These aims are undoubtedly ambitious, but they are also necessary if we are to safeguard Britain's energy future. In the words of Tim Yeo, Chairman of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee: "We know where we need to be. The truth is that the longer we take to get there the more expensive it's going to be."

And in trying to get there we must be careful not to forget the public. It is the man or woman in the street who reads about spiralling energy bills, questions the authenticity of climate change and feels bewildered, sceptical or, worst of all, apathetic. The energy policies we have to adopt will demand societal change of great magnitude; and that change will require the understanding and endorsement of the public.

With that in mind, the first step towards meaningful action may well be to start couching the broader debate in language that informs rather than alarms and in terms that foster considered judgments and erode a culture of enduring biases. In short, we have to engage those whose lives are liable to be affected for generations to come.

The international financial crisis is probably the biggest challenge confronting the UK at present, but the international energy crisis is very likely to succeed it. Enough dithering. The time to act is now.

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