Recently, the Government gave its formal backing to the creation of a new generation of nuclear power stations across the UK. Business Secretary, John Hutton, has told MPs that they would provide a “safe and affordable” route to securing the UK’s future energy supplies, while also combating global warming.

The plans entail speeding up the planning process to facilitate the construction of plants and the introduction of a new independent body to monitor decommissioning costs. The amount of energy that could be provided by the nuclear energy industry would not be capped. Hutton has also claimed that there will be “no public subsidies” for the nuclear industry.

It seems likely that the intended scheme would reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted per kilowatt-hour of electricity, and so also the nation’s carbon footprint. In this sense, the proposal is a sensible step towards achieving this aim.

However, these plans are not likely to placate more militant environmentalists, due to the waste disposal problems. The intention is to create underground caverns so as to store the radioactive waste created within the UK, though the amount to be contributed by the firms who produce such waste, and where to place such a site, have yet to be decided. In the interim, the waste shall be stored at sites such as Sellafield.

John Hutton has expressed his concerns about the safety of such a plan, however, rejecting calls for a suitable storage site to be found before giving the scheme the green light. Currently, highly radioactive, vitrified (solidified) waste from Britain is stored at sites in Germany, if only temporarily.

Unfortunately, the prospect of sourcing all the UK’s energy needs from renewable energy sources seems low enough, without factoring in the economic factors.

The cost of sourcing energy from renewable energies is not merely monetary, as the rise in grain prices can be partially attributed to the desire to produce Bio-fuels from arable land. For the poor, especially in Third-World countries that import more grain than they produce, this may not be a price they are willing to pay for a better world in the distant future.

This, then, surely necessitates the construction of the next generation of nuclear power stations, to replace the current nuclear power plants that produce approximately 20% of the UK’s energy needs.

But there is a further factor to consider, and that is the matter of supply of uranium. For approximately the last twenty years, less uranium has been produced than has been consumed by the nuclear industry, the shortfall being filled by sales of surplus from the militaries (primarily the USA and the former USSR).

As the nuclear warhead decommissioning nears its end, and increasing tension between the West and Russia increases the prospect of reversing of non-proliferation policies, the shortfall will soon no longer be filled so extensively.

Due to a lack of investment by the mining industries, demand will continue to outstrip supply (as a mining project put forward today will take roughly 10 years to reach production) for quite some time to come. With OPEC recently attributing the high cost of crude to speculation (a price change from $22 a barrel in 2002 to $100 in 2007 due solely to an increase in demand?), it is unlikely that uranium prices will also remain unaffected by speculation, possibly driving up the price far above what it presently is.

Further economic factors include the cost of waste storage, maintenance and decommissioning. An independent body, the Nuclear Liabilities Financing Assurances Board, will look at the potential clean-up costs. The nuclear power stations presently in use will cost the government an estimated £70 billion to decommission.

Given these unknowns, it would seem quite difficult to come to an accurate prediction as to the profitability of the industry, let alone the safety.

by Mike Kelly