Greenpeace, nuclear energy and climate change

Last edited 4 November 2010 at 7:49pm

Wind turbine construction in Butterwick

Climate change is the biggest threat we face, we can agree with the film producers on that. And if nuclear power was a feasible part of the solution to the climate crisis then we would change our position.

But it's not.

Decisions on how we meet the twin challenges of climate change and energy security should be made on an assessment of the real merits of the available technologies.

It would include the costs and effectiveness of the technologies in cutting CO2 emissions while delivering sufficient, secure heat and electricity.

It would also look at how globally applicable the technologies are and how they can complement each other to build a flexible, secure and clean energy system.

If we do this assessment nuclear power comes up short.

Picture it as a climate change and energy 'order of merit', with the most cost-effective and efficient technologies at the top and the least effective at the bottom.

At the top of the table there's energy efficiency. Producing energy more efficiently and being less wasteful in the way we heat our homes and business, and power our transport network.

Efficiency is the single most cost-effective way of making deep cuts to our greenhouse gas emissions.

We must also use current forms of energy from fossil fuels as efficiently as possible to bridge the change towards low carbon options.

Producing energy efficiently, whether it's from renewable or fossil-fuel sources saves money, reduces demand and cuts carbon.

For example, studies in the US have shown that spending one dollar on energy efficiency enables us to avoid seven times more CO2 than if we spend that one dollar on nuclear power.

Then there's clean, domestically sourced renewable energy. The UK has phenomenal renewable potential, enough to supply all the electricity we need, but it remains underexploited.

Supporting the growth in industries that use the power of the wind, waves and sun will not only power our country but also create jobs, new businesses and help make Britain a world-leader in cutting edge 21st Century technologies.

A major study by consultants McKinsey, scientists at Imperial College London and partners in the energy industry showed that it's entirely possible to have 80 per cent renewable power in Europe by 2050, at the same price and as reliable as energy today.

The transition to a low carbon energy supply will take some time, and between now and then we'll need to make the most efficient use of the fossil fuels we have left.

This does not mean building new unabated coal fired power stations. We successfully campaigned to stop a new coal plant at Kingsnorth in Kent and through this campaign closed the door on any new coal plants in the UK that cannot capture and store carbon. 

Of the power we use today, barely a fifth of the energy contained in the fuel is actually used in our homes and businesses. We need to make use of the heat that is normally wasted in the electricity generation process.

We need to use technologies like combined heat and power, which generates both electricity and heat for domestic and industrial use, that is then piped to our homes via heat grids as part of a more flexible, localised, decentralised energy system.  This can provide safe, secure energy around the clock, with large scale technologies available as back up if needed.

Such a system is possible here in Britain. It could burn fossil fuels as cleanly and efficiently as possible in the transition period to a cleaner, renewable future. 

Beyond this, we could look at developing the more complex, unproven technologies that may or may not be feasible, like carbon capture and storage.

Last on the list for us - in the relegation zone, if you like - is nuclear power. While it is relatively low carbon compared to coal and oil, it can't be done without public subsidy, is phenomenally expensive and there remains no solution to the problem of waste. New nuclear also means that the more cost effective, readily available alternatives above would be hindered because making nuclear a reality requires every ounce of financial, regulatory and political will on the part of the government.

We only have so much time and money to spend. We must prioritise those technologies with the most merit first.

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