Nothing commands the attention of politicians, business people and consumers alike in quite the same way that rising energy prices do. But concerns about energy supply and demand, geopolitical stability and environmental protection seem to be working at cross purposes.
The energy review launched this week by British Prime Minister Tony Blair has at least sparked renewed discussion of nuclear power as a necessary part of Europe's energy mix. But across the Continent—and certainly within the U.K.—opinions and policies vary on whether or how to move forward with nuclear power. In Germany, for example, the debate was held hostage to protracted negotiations on forming a government coalition. The resulting deal keeps an agreement reached under the previous government to phase out nuclear power by 2021.
Other countries are less hesitant. France, Europe's most committed nuclear power, is increasing its investment in the energy source. Finland, faced with growing energy demand and a big Kyoto bill, is building Europe's first new reactor in more than a decade. Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Lithuania also plan to increase their reliance on nuclear energy, even as they decommission some Soviet-era reactors.
While each nation has its own economic and political considerations, the policy that's emerging in Britain, where the public debate is again at flood tide, is telling for others. As the Blair government now recognizes, renewables are not cheap to deploy and they're not always "on," often depending on the weather. They too have environmental issues, highlighted by recent protests against the noise and landscape degradation that planned wind farms would cause. And even under optimistic projections, renewables won't halt the U.K.'s increasing reliance on imported natural gas.
Nuclear power is no panacea, either. But it does have a role to play in addressing the three critical elements of energy policy: economics, environment and security of supply.
First, nuclear power is competitive on a cost basis with other cheap forms of energy, such as gas. Depending on commodity prices, it may be the cheapest option in the future. Nuclear opponents argue that the cost of constructing and operating nuclear plants, decommissioning them and handling the waste makes nuclear uncompetitive. But recent independent studies concluded that lifetime nuclear power-generation costs were comparable with those for gas-fired plants, weighing all related costs. The new EU carbon-emissions trading scheme will likely make the economics of nuclear more attractive.
Nuclear power is the only large-scale provider of low-carbon electricity. It already saves the U.K. alone from the emission of around 35 million tons of CO2 each year, more than 6% of the country's total emissions. Even if Britain hits its ambitious target of obtaining 20% of its power from renewable sources by 2020, under current policy it would merely replace the 20% supplied today by nuclear and hence result in no net reduction in CO2 emissions. And it will require the emergence of a hydrogen economy and a whole new infrastructure for the government to meet its goal of reducing emissions 60% by 2050.
Opponents of nuclear power are rightly concerned about waste. But much of the current waste is the product of military and civilian research and development programs that ended by the early 1980s. The management of the nuclear power sector has since improved markedly, and the Blair government is committed to dealing with waste safely. New nuclear generation capacity would add only marginally to the inventory of waste.
Nuclear power also offers a secure supply of energy, a vital concern in a time of political and economic uncertainty. The U.K. soon will be a net importer of gas, mostly from or through countries that are emerging or potentially unstable. By 2020, liquefied natural gas will come mainly from OPEC countries, and piped gas mainly from Russia. With nuclear fuel, however, uranium import requirements are low, and source nations—such as Canada and Australia—politically stable. Furthermore, the U.K. has the capacity to stockpile a strategic resource of uranium or fabricated fuel. In contrast, the U.K. has just two weeks' worth of gas storage capacity.
Nuclear opponents point out that reserves of high-grade uranium are finite. But the same is true of fossil fuels, and as demand increased over the last few decades new exploration and improved recovery have sustained those reserves. Uranium will be the same. Critics also note that nuclear reactors are obvious targets for terrorists. Reactors are only one of many high-profile targets, however, and not the easiest to attack.
The nuclear industry is more than ready to propose new reactors to meet Europe's energy demands. But governments must do their part. Among the steps they can take: formulating energy policies that recognize the climate and security-of-supply benefits of nuclear power; streamlining the licensing, regulatory and planning processes; and devising clear-cut, enforceable policies on the management of radioactive waste.
These steps would require major investments of capital, both financial and political. However, Europeans have many of the tools to meet current and future energy needs at their disposal already. It's time we stepped back from the rhetoric and looked at how best to use nuclear technology as part of a truly balanced energy policy.