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(This debate is closed and is a read-only archive)
How will we meet our energy needs in the future?
The future is green
[2-Apr-2002]
'Other countries in Europe are moving away from nuclear and towards renewables and the UK should be joining them.'
Dr Dave Elliott
founder member of SERA Energy Group, and editor of the renewable energy journal RENEW
On current plans, over the next two decades, the UK will lose around nine gigawatts (GW) of generation capacity, as the old nuclear reactors are closed down. Germany, meanwhile, has installed around eight GW of wind-turbine generating capacity in the past few years - roughly 1.5GW per year - and plans to phase out nuclear entirely within 30 years. We should be able to do at least as well at replacing nuclear with wind, since the UK's wind regime is far better than Germany's.

Denmark doesn't have this problem - it decided not to build any nuclear plants in the first place, and now obtains around 18 percent of its electricity from wind turbines. But its new conservative government seems to want to back off from these impressive advances, and may even consider nuclear power. That seems very backward looking, at a time when just about everybody else in Europe is moving away from nuclear and towards renewables. For example, Belgium is phasing out its nuclear programme and pushing for offshore wind, and Spain installed one GW of wind capacity last year. Around the world, there is now around 24GW of wind power in place.

Some nuclear apologists promote France as having the right approach. In fact, France's new 'red- green' government has imposed a moratorium on new nuclear developments, shut its Fast Breeder Reactor project, and is now pushing ahead with an ambitious 10GW wind energy programme. The only objections so far seem to be from local expat Brits.

Nuclear power is expensive. British Energy wants a 1p per kilowatt hour (/kWh) subsidy before it will consider building new plants, but the most that could be obtained via exemption from the Climate Change Levy is 0.43p/kWh. By contrast, wind projects on good sites are now competitive with just about all other options, with new projects going ahead without subsidy.

Also, nuclear power is dangerous. In October 2001, the European Cancer Conference in Lisbon heard that there were already 2000 cases of thyroid cancer linked to the Chernobyl accident, and many more are expected in people who were children at the time. It is possible that new nuclear technologies will emerge that reduce some of the risks - some people even look to fusion. But do we really have try to build little Suns on Earth, when we have a perfectly good fusion reactor already - the Sun - powering a range of renewable energy flows? Finding ways to use natural energy flows like these is one of the most exciting technological challenges of our time.

And, of course, we should also be making a major commitment to energy saving by investing in the efficient generation and use of energy - including switching over to combined heat and power (CHP) generation. The gains from the currently proposed 10GW CHP programme could, by themselves, balance out the losses from the closure of the old nuclear plants - the heat output is in effect a carbon-neutral bonus, freeing up gas, otherwise used for heating, for use in electricity generation.

So rather than renewables being used just to replace nuclear, they could begin to replace coal-fired plants, the worst greenhouse gas emitters. And subsequently, over the decades ahead, renewables, including energy crops, could begin to replace natural gas for electricity and heat generation, with the production and storage of hydrogen gas helping to compensate for the intermittency of some renewable sources.

Nobody suggests a that a shift to a fossil-free future will be easy. We will need to use all the sustainable energy options, energy conservation, CHP and renewables if we are to avoid, or limit, the crippling social, economic and environmental costs of climate change. What we don't need is nuclear power, which will absorb money that could be better spent, and will bequeath us even more waste to deal with for tens of thousands of years (and we currently have no idea where this waste is to be kept in the long term).

But perhaps those who object to wind farms in rural areas will be prepared to have nuclear waste repositories near them instead?

The Socialist Environment and Resources Association (SERA) Energy Group is affiliated to the Labour party. The views expressed above are, however, my own. For more information on renewable energy developments see RENEW online

Archived list of responses

Debate home
The head-to-head
Malcolm Grimston
senior research fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs
Tom Kearney
vice president, external affairs at Shell Renewables
John Lawton
chief executive, Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
Commissioned responses
Joe Kaplinsky
Matt Ridley
Jennie Bristow
Dr Dave Elliott
Reader responses
View the list of responses

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