Zero-carbon Britain

It’s no surprise that the policy on Zero Carbon Britain was adopted, but today’s debate was lively and challenging , from Chris Huhne’s opening speech onwards.

A key part of the debate was around nuclear power. At this point I should declare an interest: my father was one of the men in white coats in the late 1950s and early 60s who developed the first peacetime uses of nuclear technology. The applications included radio-isotopes for medicine;and filters for gas masks; as well as nuclear power. Their vision was for a new kind of power that would be clean and green and safe for their generation and for ours. They had the best of intentions: but knowing what we know now, it would be the worst of decisions to endorse a new generation of nuclear power stations.

There has been a fresh debate on this, in the context of climate change. The new line is that nuclear power is green because it’s carbon neutral: but that’s a copout. Nuclear power may be carbon-neutral at the point of generation; but when you take into account the vast amounts of embedded energy, the energy used to create the infrastructure of just one nuclear power station; when you add in the land grab needed for both power stations and the waste disposal sites; when you include the impact of transporting the nuclear waste from one to the other; and the attrition, the loss of generated energy that happens on any centralised network as nuclear generation will always be – you can easily see that it’s not a green option at all.

Nor is nuclear a quick and cheap way to keep the lights on while we explore truly green alternatives. Instead it’s a huge and expensive distraction from that new technology.Nuclear isn’t quick: it will take a generation to build a new generation of nuclear power, even with this Government’s proposed ‘streamlining’  of the planning system.And it’s certainly not cheap: £74 billion pounds just to deal with the current generation of nuclear power – before a single penny has been spent on a single new nuclear power station.

I’m not into scaremongering about safety. Britain’s record on nuclear power is good: we’ve never had a Chernobyl or a Three Mile Island. Our nuclear industry is professional and well-regulated (which is one of the reasons building new power stations would take so long). But that does not make the nuclear option the right one. And I’m glad conference re-affirmed that policy.

Meanwhile Labour and Tories both back new nuclear power stations – and Brown Gordon is stitching up the consultation to ensure he gets the answers he wants. So much for the new politics….

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