Nuclear power is not energy solution, say MPs
· Committee to raise fears over terrorist attacks
· Questions over cost of waste disposal remain
Tania Branigan and John Vidal
Friday April 14, 2006
A new generation of nuclear power stations cannot solve energy supply problems in the short term and crucial questions of security, cost and effectiveness remain unanswered, MPs will warn in a report to be published this weekend.
The findings of the parliamentary environmental audit committee raise concerns over the risk of terrorist attacks, but also focus on the full costs of nuclear generation, such as the disposal of waste and decommissioning.
Its report on nuclear power, renewables and climate change questions whether new plants would cut carbon emissions as dramatically as promised and suggests they could crowd out other energy sources such as windpower. "You cannot claim nuclear is the answer to problems of supply in the gas market [in the next few years] ... Nuclear power couldn't appear over that sort of timescale," said a source who has seen the report.
But the issue is becoming more pressing because of rising demand, increasing insecurity in conventional sources of energy and the approaching energy gap. It would take upwards of 12 years to gain approval for and build new plants.
The government's energy review - given the specific task of reconsidering nuclear power after it was rejected in the energy white paper two years ago - finished taking evidence this week and is expected to report back in July. The source who has read the report described expert testimony on the risk of attacks as "impressive and alarming", adding: "If Blair is right that the world has changed, then it must apply to this area as well."
Professor Keith Barnham, energy security consultant and emeritus professor of Physics at Imperial College London, told the committee: "The possible outcome of a terrorist attack is so terrible that we feel it has to be faced up to before any new build. Basically, we have so many potential targets as a result of the waste policy."
Critics of nuclear energy accept that new reactors are safer than their predecessors. British Nuclear Fuels told the committee that even existing structures were extremely robust and that sites had good security arrangements, approved by the Office for Civil Nuclear Security.
But there are concerns that the reactor models favoured by the nuclear industry are not the safest available and that increasing the number of plants and the amount of nuclear material transported will inevitably increase the risks.
"It's not just about [guarding] installations, but also any transport involved against theft - not just terrorist attacks. That tends to be ignored," said the source. Alan Johnson, the trade and industry secretary, insists that ministers are open-minded about the case for a renewal of nuclear generation, but anti-nuclear campaigners are concerned that the prime minister has already decided new plants are necessary. Critics say private firms are unlikely to invest in nuclear energy without powerful incentives, such as long term guarantees of costs or demand.
Sir David King, the government's chief scientific adviser, warned the committee: "I do not believe the utilities are going to take on the onus of purchasing a new nuclear power station unless the government has discussed with them what kind of guarantees can be given over the expected lifetime of such a power station."
A member of the committee said that closing the energy gap would require a range of solutions: "There is no silver bullet to meet the nation's growing energy demands." Earlier this year the government's Sustainable Development Commission concluded that there was no justification for bringing forward a new programme of reactors.
Like the audit committee, it also identified several major disadvantages to nuclear, including waste, cost, inflexibility and undermining energy efficiency. Yesterday Jonathan Porritt, director of the commission, said: "We sought to demonstrate that Britain is not a country that needs recourse to nuclear to meet energy security or climate change objectives".
The industry has traditionally ducked the terrorist issue, saying that an attack is unimaginable. But Tony Juniper, head of Friends of the Earth, said yesterday that a new programme would inevitably leave Britain vulnerable. "All it needs is one accident and the impact is devastating."
FAQ Nuclear options
Why is nuclear energy back on the agenda?
Questions about the security of oil and gas supplies and concerns about global warming are pushing governments to find alternatives. Experts fear renewable sources are not efficient enough to meet future needs.
What is the government doing?
Last November it announced that the energy minister, Malcolm Wicks, would report on the options in July.
What will happen next?
If nuclear power is approved there will still be questions to answer, including how to deal with waste and what incentives the private sector might receive for new reactors.