The UK’s energy security prospects are once again making the headlines, as Ed Milliband this week announced the top 10 suitable sites for the next generation of nuclear power plants, describing nuclear power as a “proven, reliable source of low carbon energy”.
The announcement comes amidst heightened concerns surrounding the peak oil debate, with the UK ERC claiming that conventionally extracted global oil production could ‘peak’ and go into terminal decline before 2020.
However, the environmentalists have criticised the decision, warning of the “deadly legacy” of radioactive waste, and argued that investment should be focused on renewables instead. Interestingly, one of the oldest and most efficient windfarms in Britain will be dismantled at Kirksanton to make way for the nuclear plant, to the dismay of some locals.
Faced with the prospect of depleting supplies from the North Sea, the UK is now paying the price for its ‘dash for gas’, following the closure of the coal mines in the 1980s. To support the development of this next generation of energy infrastructure, the UK Government has announced a host of measures to reduce the planning constraints that are likely to hamper such large infrastructure projects, and hopes to have the first new nuclear plant operating by 2018.
Professor Barry Brook at the University of Adelaide has welcomed the announcements from the UK government, and encouraged the Australian government to take heed. He highlights that unlike the situation for uranium power, the electricity price is strongly tied to the fuel price for gas and therefore fluctuations in gas prices lead to price spikes in power prices.
Cheap uranium energy, on the other hand, provides a much more secure proposition to meet both energy security and climate change goals; and he adds that
“…there is enough uranium to provide the whole world with zero-carbon power for millions of years.”
Nuclear power is the only proven electricity generation technology that can simultaneously meet reliable baseload demand, anywhere, and yet emit no carbon dioxide when operating. Along with hydropower from dams, it is the only clean energy technology that has been shown to be scalable.
France is a case in point. It derives nearly 80% of its electricity from 59 nuclear plants and is the world’s biggest electricity exporter. It has the cheapest power rates in Europe, and has the lowest carbon footprint per person.
However, the significance of radioactive wastes and contamination threats should not be underestimated if we really want to promote sustainable development that considers the intergenerational impact and legacy of such technologies. In this vein, it might be argued that the significant funds for these large infrastructure projects would, in fact, be better targeted at scale-up and capacity building for renewable technologies such as wind, solar, tidal and others, which don’t generate such controversial by-products. For now, the pressure is on in the UK to streamline the planning process to enable the speedy construction required to bridge the expected energy gap.