The German government has said that all the German nuclear power stations must close by 2022. The Swiss government has said that no new ones will be built. The Italian government has put nuclear on hold. All these developments are bad news for the global climate, as nuclear closure or slowdown will result in the burning of more coal and gas. And the risk of uncontrolled climate change is greater than any of the risks associated with nuclear power.
Fortunately, the UK government is taking a more rational approach. Energy and Climate Secretary, Chris Huhne, has accepted that nuclear power is necessary, despite his Liberal Democrat party being opposed. After Fukushima, Huhne instructed the UK’s Chief Nuclear Inspector to report on the safety of nuclear reactors. The Chief Inspector has now published an interim report – the final report is due in September 2011. The interim report states that the UK has displayed a strong safety culture in its response to Fukushima and that current safety measures are adequate.
Another important publication in May 2011 was a report from the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, a publicly-funded advisory body chaired by the former head of the Confederation of British Industry, which says that the costs of nuclear power will be lower than the costs of carbon capture and storage or offshore wind:
“Nuclear power currently appears to be the most cost-effective of the low-carbon technologies.”
The Committee’s calculations include the costs of decommissioning and waste disposal. Onshore wind power is cheaper than the nuclear option, but onshore wind is severaly constrained by public opposition – not every debate in the UK is rational. Other renewables, including offshore wind, have higher costs.
The line taken by a government, or the opinion of an advisory committee, does not mean that any nuclear power stations will actually get built. Margaret Thatcher, who was quite good at getting things to happen, called for ten new nuclear power stations, but delivered only one. Most British environmental groups remain opposed to nuclear power – though they are more strongly opposed to coal, unlike the Greens in Germany for whom nuclear power remains enemy number one. Therefore, the building of new nuclear power stations in the UK is far from certain. However, even after Fukushima, it is not impossible.