These days it seems that if you want to comment on a statement by the Prime Minister you have be aware that, rather like a film, the statement will be trailed, and then made, but the trailer is usually so extensive that you do not want to bother with the full version.
Today’s trailer is about a speech that Gordon Brown will make at the Confederation of British Industry. He calls for an acceleration of nuclear power. The trailer provides an extensive quote: “We must and will take the right long-term decisions to invest now for the next generation of sustainable and secure energy supplies.”
Of course, nuclear power provides neither a secure nor sustainable energy supply. In so far as security is concerned there are two aspects; first is the ability to source the uranium. The United Kingdom does not have any of its own uranium; we have to depend on other countries for it and if uranium is a valuable energy source they will sell it to the highest bidder.
The second aspect of security relates to the security of safety. Processing uranium in order to create electricity is in itself dangerous; there have not been many accidents but those that have happened have had very bad long lasting consequences. Once the uranium fuel is spent storing it is expensive and insecure because it has to be stored for longer than recorded history before it is safe.
There is always a lot of waste heat when nuclear power is created and due to the dangers associated with nuclear energy generation it is not recommended to use the waste heat for heating homes. Instead it is dumped in the sea, changing the local marine ecology.Nuclear power is not sustainable. It is a finite resource. There is probably only between seventy and one hundred twenty years of the easy to mine uranium left assuming consumption at present rates. Of course if many more nuclear power plants are built the supplies would be eaten up more quickly.
There are other supplies of much harder to mine uranium in places like India and Pakistan, but these are extremely expensive.
The trailer of Mr Brown’s speech does not indicate whether he will claim that nuclear energy is carbon free. I expect he will make some claim in this regard, probably that it is a low carbon source of electrical power. If he does then any such claim will be wishful thinking.
Certainly using nuclear energy is low carbon in the short term but when you add not just the carbon consequences of mining the uranium and processing it, but also the carbon consequences of building huge underground concrete storage bunkers for the waste and maintaining these for ten thousand or so years you will find the low carbon alternative has morphed into a higher carbon one.
If you use the hard to mine uranium from India you will find the carbon consequences about the same as burning oil, instead of using uranium.
I have always thought that the storage issue is the one that really militates against nuclear power. Nuclear waste is invisible, undetectable without instruments and highly toxic; it causes death and renders life as we know it impossible, contaminating land as well as people. In lower doses it merely causes cancers and birth defects. Once it escapes you cannot put it back into the bottle. It remains highly toxic for ten thousand years. Until we can come up with a way of either removing its toxicity or having a fool proof method of storage of the waste we should leave it well alone. We are too dumb to handle it.
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