Germany thinks nuclear represents a dead end, while France has maintained faith in the technology, but the UK still loiters at the crossroads – writes academic
The global financial crisis is perhaps the greatest challenge facing the United Kingdom at present. But there is little doubt that the international energy crisis will be the next. For years now, Britain has agonised over issues such as climate change and security of energy supply. The need to reshape our energy portfolio has grown ever more apparent and ever more urgent. Yet, the prevailing response has been an increasing impression of drift. Confronted by difficult choices that will have implications for decades, Britain has allowed energy policy in general and the approach to nuclear power in particular to remain hampered by a lack of clarity, a history of ingrained views and a paucity of informed public debate.
Tempted though some might be to continue burying their collective head in the slagheap, the problem really cannot be ignored any longer. It will not go away. With carbon targets, fuel poverty and proposed new nuclear power stations rising up the national agenda - the necessity to demonstrate a sense of direction is irresistible. Nuclear power, of course, remains especially divisive. There is a huge amount of firm conviction and a notable dearth of common ground, even though in many instances there is no indisputable right or wrong. The events at Japan's Fukushima plant, on March 11 last year, inevitably served to highlight this stark polarisation. The likes of Germany swiftly decided nuclear represents a dead end, while France and others promptly reasserted their conviction that it offers a path to sustainability.
Britain, meanwhile, still loiters at the crossroads having fallen significantly behind many of its international competitors in terms of embracing the nuclear option. It is still not too late to move, not quite. But the unavoidable fact is that Britain has to make some massive decisions as soon as possible. Which way should it head? There are very strong arguments for making nuclear power a crucial component of Britain's overall programme of low-carbon energy generation. Indeed, there is a compelling case for the country to be rebuilt as a nuclear nation if it is to tackle the threat of global warming and other colossal concerns. Although a number of hurdles must be overcome if this is to happen.
First and foremost, it is vital that government and industry share the financial risks associated with new nuclear power stations. The latter cannot be expected to bear the burden alone and is unlikely to remain committed to the process without the support of taxpayers' money. That is the harsh but inescapable fiscal reality of the undertaking. Second, policy-makers and industry must work together to produce a shared 'roadmap' that details a coherent long-term strategy. And 'long-term' should mean exactly that: a country has to foresee an elapse of at least 100 years between the initial planning and the final decommissioning of the latest power plants, not to mention the management of long-lived radioactive waste and the stewardship of disposal sites.
We have to recognise, too, that Britain's current capacity in the nuclear field is in many respects critical or to put it more accurately, sub-critical. The UK was once a world-leader in the development of fission technologies. In the 1980s, we had a research and development workforce of more than 8,000 and an annual budget beyond £300m a year. Now the R&D workforce stands at fewer than 600, while funding has fallen to less than 10 per cent of the historical level. Similarly, we are far from having an appropriate workforce in place in the event of a build programme getting under way. At this point in time there is a very real worry that the scale of training achievable will not match demand. So we need to reinforce R&D budgets to better reflect the strategic importance of the nuclear sector; and we need an extensive programme of government-led training and education for the very same reason.
These goals might seem monumental. They are. However, so are the challenges we face in terms of safeguarding Britain's energy future. And it is essential that everyone appreciates this. To quote Tim Yeo, chairman of the House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Committee, we "know where we need to be; the truth is that the longer we take to get there the more expensive it's going to be". With that in mind, the first meaningful step may well be to begin couching the broader discussion in language that informs rather than alarms and in terms that encourage balanced judgments rather than the entrenchment of enduring biases. In short, we have to engage the public.
We too quickly forget, after all, the importance of the man and woman in the street. It is the public that reads about climate change and rising energy bills, that is bombarded with conflicting extremes of information and that feels confused, suspicious or even worse apathetic. The energy policies of the 21st century, one way or another, will entail enormous societal change. That change will come about more easily with the endorsement and understanding of all those who it will affect for generations to come.Martin Freer is professor of nuclear physics at Birmingham University, in the United Kingdom. He is also a member of the university's policy commission on nuclear energy, which published its findings here