Rapid nuclear “binge” to meet climate change targets is unrealistic and undesirable says UK expert

By Tierney Smith

A rapid nuclear “binge” to prevent runaway global warming is not practical and would ignore pressing development issues, a leading UK expert in atomic energy has told RTCC.

Speaking to at the sidelines of the Low Carbon Energy for Development Conference at Sussex University, Professor Gordon MacKerron, said it was not inevitable or desirable for countries to pursue large scale nuclear programmes.

“While nuclear power will remain as a potential option for some countries, the notion that it can play a large role in some kind of global low carbon future seems to me it would be frankly unrealistic and probably undesirable,” he said.

UK expert warns against a nuclear power "binge" in response to climate change (Source: Toni Rodrigo/Flickr)

“It is a slow process; nuclear power takes a long time to develop, to pass through regulatory processes and to pass through political hurdles. There are other larges scale technologies – of which large scale solar is an obvious example – that might do just a good a job, cheaper and quicker and with less controversy.”

Earlier this week, leading UK polar expert Peter Wadhams called for accelerated research into geo-engineering options, as well as increased investment in nuclear energy.

Speaking after spending the summer in the Arctic, Wadhams said his recent observations of the region’s vanishing sea-ice had convinced him that urgent measures had to be taken.

Cost-benefit anaylsis

MacKerron’s views are worth taking into account given his expertise.

Over the past two decades he has advised various UK governments on the merits of nuclear energy, and between 2003-2007 he was Chair of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, an independent body charged with recommending the best approach to long-term radioactive waste management.

And MacKerron argues that the cost of nuclear, strict regulations and concerns over safety and the disposal of waste mean the technology is unlikely to play a huge role in the future.

New plants cost in the region of £2.8 billion, and can take around eight years to construct. Operators also have to pay their share of waste disposal costs, an increasingly contentious issue around the world.

Nuclear is already an integral part of the energy mix in many countries. It provides approximately 20% of electricity to the UK and USA, while India and China are both pursuing their own ambitious programmes.

Others are not so keen. Japan is attempting to wean itself off atomic energy post Fukushima with limited success, while Germany plans to close all nuclear plants by 2022.

Energy and development

MacKerron says too much emphasis on nuclear ignores developmental concerns, and will not ensure those in the poorest countries gain access to energy they vitally need.

“If you take some of the poorer countries in the world – and that will include nearly all of Africa, some parts of Asia, limited parts of Latin America – prospects for nuclear power appear practically non-existent,” said MacKerron.

“The kind of conditions that you need for nuclear power simply aren’t there and it is not even clear, even though nuclear is a low carbon technology, such a technology could contribute to the developmental need of the poorest of some of the developing countries.”

Gordon MacKerron says notion that large scale nuclear power is “inevitable” is unfounded, particularly when looking at the situation in the developing world.

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