The Nuclear Debate

We can see from the last article that Nuclear power has proven to be an attractive path to take in order to counteract the issues presented by the depletion of non-renewables. I was intending to present the cons of Nuclear power in this article, however I recently attended a three day conference in Buxton during which a debate was held discussing the positives and negatives of nuclear power and I felt this would be a perfect article to place to tie between the pros and cons, therefore the cons article would shortly follow this. The debate was lead by two very knowledgable, highly trained individuals holding very high positions in the nuclear industry.  This was Mr.P.Wilkinson and Prof.G.Butler, below is an overview of both their contributions to the nuclear and environmental industry:

Supporting Nuclear Power:

Gregg Butler

Deputy Chief Executive, BNFL

Leader of a change management programme at the UK nuclear fuel manufacture Springfields site

Negotiated a complex £4Bn fixed price deal with Scottish Nuclear, now part of British Energy

Developed and patented, on behalf of BNFL, a method of density control for uranium oxide nuclear fuel, still in worldwide use. 

Director, UK Nirex

Member of the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee (RWMAC)

Managing Director, Pangea Resources Australia Pty Ltd

Chairman, Westlakes Scientific Consulting

Opposing Nuclear Power:

Peter Wilkinson

Co-founder of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace UK

Campaigns Director Greenpeace UK

Member of the original Board of Greenpeace International

Antarctic expedition leader over six years

Member of the Sizewell Site Stakeholder Group, reviewing and providing informed challenges to the operations on and plans for the Sizewell site.

 Member of the HSE Transition Advisory Group

We were able to ask several questions, however I have condensed the main issues covered and summarised the answers, the discussion was highly informative and very entertaining at times, especially when certain people got a bit carried away and were practically told to ‘shut up’.

The first issue addressed was the suitability of nuclear energy as an actual solution for the UK’s looming energy crisis. According to Peter, this was not a very cost effective approach, he stressed that there are other solutions out there,  however they are being ignored. He also went on to explain that aside from the problems introduced when building new plants, the older nuclear power plants are still causing waste issues, for example the Sellafield plants are currently polluting the local air with plutonium. To counteract this Gregg explained that it is a relatively new technology, and with all early stages in technologies there is going to be problems, the important thing is to develop a learning curve. This is where the UK are having issues, because there is no consistency and data logging of the nuclear industry progress, there are no learning curves and therefore problems tend to reoccur rather than get resolved. He also went on to reinforce the point I mentioned in the last article, that nuclear power can also be used to produce energy indirectly in producing biofuels. However Peter thinks biofuels are inefficient.  

We then went on to look at the issues faced within geological disposal of nuclear waste and whether it is wise to put into practice stakeholder engagement. Geological disposal simply means that the nuclear waste will be buried hundreds of meters below the ground in a stable geologic environment.  Stakeholder engagement allows any individual, community or organisation that may be affected by the waste disposal to have meaningful opportunities to express their views, which will be then be taken into consideration in the decision making process. Gregg fully supports this idea and believes that it promotes democracy, stating that consultation of the locals is very important. However Peter counteracted this stating that firstly people are presented with insufficient information in order to make their decisions, and somethings are being held back from them. He also explained that nuclear waste outlasts humans and therefore the people of today will be making a decision for future generations who will have to accept the decisions by default. Furthermore he also went to explain that science isn’t always right and therefore there could be some serious consequences for the locals’ health,and he finally added that the UK has proven to be geologically unsuitable for nuclear waste disposal. Gregg replied to this by stating that the stakeholders would regulate the scientific inaccuracies, and that rather than using the UK negotiations could be struck with other countries.

We discussed the impact government has on the nuclear industry. Greg explained that the government were in favour of nuclear power simply because it cuts CO2  emissions significantly. However Peter stated that this is because they are not educated properly on the technology and are blindly following it. He then went on to explain that allowing people holding bachelors of arts and business degrees to read, analyse and understand scientific reports in order to make decisions regarding nuclear energy isn’t exactly the most confidence inspiring method. This results in the government ignoring the uncertainties and doubt regarding low dose radiation  with regards to how dangerousit actually is. The government also fully support the reprocessing of nuclear waste streams to produce one spent fuel, which Peter explains only cuts 20% of the fuel and increases operating costs by 20% stressing that economically it is a very bad option. Gregg explains that reprocessing waste streams allows us to deal with one spent fuel rather than several different waste streams.

Finally we concluded on the topic of public perception and how information and science reports are tailored to favour nuclear energy introduction,  Peter explained. He states that there is no transparency in information and that the public should be able to access all information available in order to have faith and trust nuclear research. However Gregg responded to this by explaining that some information needs to be keep confidential for the safety of the country to avoid terrorist threats etc…

It can be seen from this brief summary of the debate that it is difficult to conclude whether or not to adapt nuclear energy within the UK. The positives of this technology have been looked into and the debate was inconclusive, so all that remains is to ask ‘What are the serious disadvantages to this technology that are pushing people such as Mr.Wilkinson to take such a strong stance against it?’

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