New UK nuclear would cut carbon - in the wrong way

7 March 2006

The UK’s Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) says that retaining and doubling nuclear capacity to 40% would result in an 8% decrease in total carbon emissions from 1990 levels by 2035.

The commission’s chair, former director of Friends of the Earth, Sir Jonathan Porritt, wrote in a parallel statement of his own that climate change is the most pressing issue in the energy sphere.

The SDC's 'position paper', however, devalues nuclear’s potential carbon-cutting contribution by noting that the same savings could be made in other ways. The authors are “concerned that a new nuclear programme would give out the wrong signal to consumers, encouraging the impression that the challenge of climate change can be tackled by a large-scale technology fix.” The SDC prefers instead the large-scale technology fix of a nationwide shift towards small-scale distributed renewable generation combined with increasing energy efficiency.

The SDC also thinks energy efficiency could be curtailed by a push for new nuclear: “a new nuclear programme could indirectly reduce political support for policies aimed at energy efficiency by competing for public funding.”

The report then took note of nuclear’s most unsustainable feature: the waste problem, and in particular the fact that long-lived wastes must be managed by many subsequent generations. The SDC's conclusion by a majority vote of just eight to seven was that “there is no justification for bringing forward plans for a new nuclear power programme, at this time, and that any such proposal would be incompatible with the government’s own sustainable development strategy.”

The advice has been forwarded to government ministers at this time during the energy review, headed by energy minister Malcolm Wicks, which will specifically address the matter of nuclear energy. In particular, the review will consider whether it is in Britain’s interests to ‘facilitate’ new nuclear build. The review will be published at the end of July this year.

It is widely thought that changes could be made to the Climate Change Levy, a tax on generation which is meant to dissuade the use of fossil fuels but also applies to nuclear. Changes to planning procedures are also likely, but the one thing few in the power industry would expect to see is public money spent to support privately-owned nuclear generating stations.


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