The government's proposed fanfare event to revamp the nuclear industry now looks to be off; at least if they listen to their advisors, who conclude that "Nuclear Power is Dangerous, Expensive and Unwanted" ("The Independent", Tuesday 7th of March, Front Page). I am relieved to read this, since I concluded in a previous posting ("A Nuclear future?") that the idea was doomed, on the grounds that any actual expansion of the industry would require building even more than the number required to replace the existing 31 reactors due for decommissioning by 2025. This alone is a monumental undertaking, and to install sufficient of them on top of that to make any real difference in our CO2 emissions would render the exercise stupendous. To put this into context, the U.K.'s electricity generating capacity is around 64 GW (64,000 Mega-Watts), of which 22% is presently supplied from nuclear, or around 14 GW. (It should be noted that only about 2/3 of this capacity is used even during peak hours, but the maximum is the capacity we need to budget for, just in case, i.e. replacing like for like).
12 new Sizewell B capacity reactors (1.2 GW) could supply 14 GW of electricity and therefore replace the existing generation of reactors, most of which are of much lower output (down to about 0.4 GW = 400 MW). To produce the remaining 78% of electricity made mainly from gas (renewables only provide a couple of percent at most), we would need to build an additional 43 reactors of Sizewell B capacity, or 12 + 43 = 55 in all. Even then, it takes a nuclear power plant 10 years to pay-off its "carbon debt", i.e the budget of CO2 emissions incurred during the mining of the stone, and then in crushing it into a fine powder to make the required vast quantities of concrete; mining iron ore and then turning it into steel; then actually fabricating these materials into the required "Lego" pieces and finally bolting them all together; mining and enriching the uranium fuel and honing it into fuel rods; the same for the graphite control rods; constructing and installing the 50 miles or so of corrosion resistant nickel-steel pipes to make the heat transfer systems; providing pumps, motors and turbines etc.; installing the means for external water extraction - nuclear power plants are almost always built next door to a convenient river - and its subsequent safe discharge into the environment, etc. etc.
Even then, since electricity accounts for only 18% of the total energy used in the U.K., as I explain in my previous listing "Energy - not just Electricity" we would still be generating the other 80% of total energy using fossil fuels, and our colossal efforts to cut CO2 emissions using nuclear would only amount to 78% of 18% = 14%, which is nowhere near the 80-90% reduction in CO2 called for by 2030, in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. For that matter, some "experts" think it is already too late to avert this scenario, whatever we do now.
Add to this the fact that if the U.K. nation adopts this nuclear course alone, it will make practically no difference to global CO2 levels in the atmosphere, and if the whole world follows in similar fashion, it will run out of uranium in 4 - 7 years; alternatively, the material might be eked out for hundreds of years by turning it into plutonium in fast-breeder reactors, potentially arming terrorists (or anyone else with a grudge or wanting to make a ransom-bid of some kind).
The argument just doesn't hold, and the consequences of its acceptance would simply make the world even more dangerous. In our hands we have other choices, of energy efficiency and sustainable living. Of cutting our colossal energy use, mainly for transportation, but also by using more thermally efficient building materials, and deploying them in more effective construction strategies, fitted with less energy demanding devices (low-energy light-bulbs are a start). We could probably cut our entire energy use by 50%, in short order (at least compared to the timescale required for the putative nuclear expansion), and that is without the need for nuclear power at all.
I hope Mr Blair takes heed of his advisors, but we shall see. As I have mentioned before, there are other uses for uranium and plutonium which might fire-off a different agenda.