The parties bright ideas
1st October 2009
EU energy beyond 2010
1st October 2009

Going nuclear

Going nuclear While nuclear power may not be on the agenda in Northern Ireland, Ryan Jennings looks at its role in reducing carbon emissions.

Across the UK there are 19 nuclear reactors, generating around one fifth of the electricity used. It is, though, not without contention that it has made its way back up the energy agenda.

Nuclear plants’ contributions have steadily declined since 2006. In that year it accounted for 19 per cent, compared to gas’ 36 per cent and 38 per cent from coal. In 2007 the nuclear share fell to 15 per cent. Exact figures for 2008 and 2009 are not available.

The waste material from a reaction can be dangerous and must be specially stored. By and large this is done in cooling ponds or in concrete at the reactor sites. In the UK, this process is expected by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to cost around £2,504.6 million in 2009- 2010.

Controversies over plants such as Sellafield, in Cumbria, have not helped the energy’s profile and many are distrusting of it.

Until 2003, that included the UK Government. It was known to be unconvinced about the need for nuclear power. In 2006, an energy policy review put nuclear back on the agenda. Any new plants, however, would need to be built and financed by the private sector.

In October 2008 the UK Government announced a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. Indeed, it concluded that for that target to be met, nuclear power would be essential. Unofficially it is understood that ministers and advisors would like to see 40 per cent nuclear supply.

In July this year, in the ‘Road to 2010’ report, the Government stated: “Nuclear power is a proven technology which generates low carbon electricity. It is affordable, dependable and safe.”

It also calls the alternative source “an essential part of any global solution to the related and serious challenges of climate change and energy security”.

Fighting climate change is highlighted as the “single greatest threat to humanity this century” and the report concludes that nuclear energy is “vital”.

The document warns that nuclear power cannot be viewed along with the hostile use of nuclear technology i.e. weaponry.

In order to build confidence, the safety of nuclear will have to be made clear. That means being able to point to a successful track record as both an energy producer and consumer. The UK, the Government believes, needs to take the lead in this.

Government commitment to nuclear energy is due to energy security concerns, as current reactors approach the end of their operating lives, and the need to limit carbon emissions.

Each plant has a shelf life and many are due to close in the next decade. All but one (Sizewell B) are due to be retired by 2023. With that in mind the Government’s line in 2006 was that at the very least there need to be replacements for the nuclear energy used which is supplied by plants that will be closed.

In local terms Northern Ireland is generally considered too small an area to both incorporate or make maximum use from nuclear power, though some of the electricity which comes through the Moyle Interconnector has been produced through nuclear.

In any case, although nuclear energy remains an excepted matter, planning is not. Should there be any move to build a plant in the province it would likely not receive planning permission.

DETI’s draft Strategic Energy Framework document states “The Department has taken the view that, in fulfilling its responsibilities on security of supply, it will maintain a watching brief on the future role of nuclear energy, set within the United Kingdom and European Union policy context.”

Without second guessing the UK electorate, there could well be a change in government in the next nine months. At present the Tories recognise the need for a low-carbon economy, which nuclear would fit into.

That party says that nuclear power will come into the energy mix, but only if it is economically viable. Any new stations, it states, should not leave tax-payers liable for either running costs or the decommissioning of waste.

Just as the Labour Government believes nuclear will be essential to filling the void that increased renewable energy use will leave, the Conservatives reiterate that nuclear is not an alternative to developing renewables.

Article from agendaNi issue 31 October 2009