Is nuclear the way forward?

In light of the new spending cuts, nuclear plans have been given the go-ahead, whilst plans for renewable energy from tidal barrages have been scrapped.

There’s been awful lot of hype recently about the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review and the effect it will have on our futures. Students especially have quite a lot to worry about regarding future employment opportunities and cuts to university budgets. But how are these cuts affecting the environment?

Well, the axe has fallen pretty unevenly when it comes to the environment. The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has been left largely untouched, which means that the projects and programmes it funds to tackle climate change can still go ahead, the most noticeable of which being the scheme to build a Carbon Capture and Storage (CSS) plant that will help coal-fired power stations minimise their carbon dioxide emissions by storing it under the seabed.

On the other hand, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) suffered a massive blow as their budget was cut by 30 per cent, compared to the government average of 19 per cent. By the end of the four-year period set out by the “greenest government ever”, they will have slashed funding from flood protection and pollution monitoring and will have sold or given away important National Nature Reserves. Cuts have also been felt at Natural England, the national biodiversity agency, which protects all things natural.

Mind you, at least the main environmental quangos Natural England, the Environment Agency and the Forestry Commission have survived the great “burning”.

Overall, it’s pretty mixed. The Severn Estuary’s tidal barrage has been scrapped (a highly controversial issue in itself) but £200m has been put towards wind power development and £1bn for the green investment bank. Investment is also to continue in flood defences (although that isn’t tackling the root of the problem, just mitigating the impacts) and £860m of funding has been made available for the Renewable Heat incentive which will increase renewable heat by tenfold over the coming decade. £200 million has also been put towards low-carbon technologies. It seems that nature and biodiversity will suffer more than green technology.

However, just as the Severn Barrage plan was scrapped, which could have provided 5% of the UK’s power, the DECC has put together controversial new plans to build nuclear power plants at eight new sites – Bradwell, Essex; Hartlepool; Heysham, Lancashire; Hinkley Point, Somerset; Oldbury, Gloucestershire; Sellafield, Cumbria; Sizewell, Suffolk; and Wylfa, Anglesey.

The output of modern reactors is much larger nowadays, which means that the UK’s low carbon emission energy supply and energy security would be much greater. And in view of an apparent lack of alternatives in light of the Spending Review – maybe nuclear is the way forward. It is affordable, has low carbon emissions and produces huge amounts of energy for only a small area of land used – unlike wind and solar farms. Plus, nowadays, it’s relatively safe.

Investment in alternative forms of energy are desperately needed right now. The UK could face an energy crisis by the middle of the next decade, if the existing nuclear plants come to the end of their lives and at the same time coal and gas are running out and the feasibility of renewable energy is questionable. However, until technologies are developed so as to make renewable energy a cost-effective, non-ecologically-damaging feasible alternative, nuclear, while not a viable long-term environmentally friendly option, looks like it might have to do for now.

Chris Huhne, the energy and climate secretary, stated that “I’m fed up with the stand-off between advocates of renewables and of nuclear which means we have neither” – and he’s right. Yes, both have advantages and disadvantages, but at the moment, until consumer behaviour can be changed and energy consumption reduced and until feasible technologies can be developed and the UK has the money to spend on them, nuclear looks set to be the lesser of two evils.

Nuclear will help the UK to reduce its carbon emissions and help diversify energy production to ensure a continuous supply. It’s safer nowadays, so there isn’t the threat of a “British Chernobyl”. Nuclear already produces 20% of the UK’s electricity and nuclear expansion could increase this and help achieve low carbon emission energy production.

However, critics suggest that it is expensive and that toxic and radioactive waste remains just that for tens of thousands of years. Methods of managing this waste are contentious too. It could leak out of its storage into the seabed, into drinking water aquifers and onto agricultural land.

And why can’t all this investment be put towards viable renewable energy options? Nuclear is a quick option, which produces large amounts of energy, whereas renewables, although highly desirable and indeed necessary in the long term, are too inefficient, need much more research and development and will not produce enough energy to meet UK demands or the government’s targets.

And even renewable energy is contentious – there exists a stand-off between environmentalists and conservationists who claim that tidal and wind energy solutions damage delicate ecosystems and devastate wildlife numbers and habitats.

At the moment, it seems that nuclear has the most advantages, for the least devastating disadvantages at least in the short term. Hopefully, the investment into nuclear energy will allow time for us to develop our renewable technologies so that ultimately we may become a carbon-neutral economy without damaging the ecosystems and wildlife that have been so fiercely and rightly protected. Well, one can dream.

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