Nuclear power

There are some who would place nuclear generation in the renewables category. Whilst there may be as yet no known limit to the availability of fuel for fission nuclear power stations, the problems of security, decommissioning and waste disposal remain largely unsolved. The UK's radioactive waste tally currently stands at 10 000 tonnes. For these reasons, in this context, nuclear power will remain an unsustainable energy source until its problems are solved in a way that will not impose a burden on future generations. Those opposed to nuclear generation have been encouraged by the decision of the UK government to abandon plans to construct two further pressurised water plants. The Energy White Paper of 2002 deferred a decision on nuclear expansion until 2005 on the grounds that it would then review the potential of renewable technologies to fill the impending energy gap. At the present rate of progress it would seem that this is a forlorn hope even though studies have shown that renewables can generate at least twice the capacity needed for the UK as stated earlier.

Events of 2002 have illustrated how international terrorism has reached new heights of sophistication. Some consider that it would be folly to construct a new generation of tempting targets.

There has been progress on the development of nuclear fusion - the power source that replicates the energy of the sun. The principle is that a mix of hydrogen isotopes is heated to 100 million degrees which causes their nuclei to fuse producing helium and massive amounts of energy. Powerful elecromagnetic rings called tokamaks (like a doughnut) are able to store the superheated plasmas. So far the problem has been that it has taken more energy to heat the gas to fusion temperature than is produced by the reaction. There has also been a problem of maintaining the high temperatures. However, the UK's fusion laboratory at Culham has achieved breakeven between energy input and output. A Japanese facility has achieved the same result.

Designs have been produced for the next generation of reactor by a consortium of the European Union, Japan and Russia - the International Tokamak Experimental Reactor (ITER). It is predicted to produce ten times as much power as it consumes. According to Sir David King, UK Chief Government Scientist, we could have commercial fusion electricity within 30 years. 'If successful, it could be the world's most important energy source over the next millennium' (New Scientist, 10 April 2004, p. 20). Unlike the present day nuclear fission reactor, fusion reactors will not produce masses of highly radioactive waste staying a hazard for 250 000 years.

Those concerned about a new generation of nuclear fission reactors should note the prediction in a Royal Commission report of 2000 that, if current trends continue, including the present rate of installing renewable technologies, then by 2050 the country will need the equivalent of 46 of the latest Sizewell B type nuclear reactors to meet demand (Energy - The Changing Climate, Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution Report, 2000).

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