The UK government’s chief scientific advisor has said that building new nuclear power plants should be central to a new energy policy aimed at reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Professor David King recommended boosting the contribution of renewable energy sources to electricity generation, aiming for 20% of capacity by 2020. But he added that reaching that target would only lead to a “standstill position” on emissions if the country’s “zero carbon” nuclear stations, which produce 27% of current capacity, are decommissioned over that period.

“It seems to me that our dependence on fossil fuels would be unchanged unless there is new nuclear build, at least to replace existing nuclear power stations,” he said.

Professor King has spoken in the past of his scepticism about nuclear power – sharing concerns with environmental groups about the disposal and storage of radioactive waste. But now, although he said that dealing with nuclear waste remained a “key issue”, he said that it should not prevent further nuclear development. “We have to deal with the nuclear waste problem. That’s not something that we can leave,” he said.

“On the other hand that is a problem that we have at the moment. It is a legacy from the long Cold War period and we have to deal with that whether or not we continue with nuclear power.” Professor King called for a public debate on the subject of nuclear regeneration and concluded that: “Those who are opposed to nuclear on environmental grounds have to weigh up this difficult balance…are we going to continue with global warming or are we going to mitigate it? If we are going to treat that as a priority…then we need to continue our dependence on nuclear power at least in the intermediate phase until renewables really come on stream substantially.” Adrian Ham, director general of the British Nuclear Energy Forum, welcomed Professor King’s speech, which was delivered at the Albert Hall in London to mark the launch of National Science Week, and said he was confident that it reflected ideas circulating within government. “The government now has to create the level-playing field for low-carbon energy sources to ensure that they can play their full part in the future. This includes working toward a timely and publicly acceptable policy on nuclear,” he added.
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