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« Austrailia approves uranium exports to UAE | Main | China in talks to build UK nuclear power plants »
Friday
Aug032012

The dream that failed

A year after Fukushima, the future for nuclear power is not bright—for reasons of cost as much as safety

THE enormous power tucked away in the atomic nucleus, the chemist Frederick Soddy rhapsodised in 1908, could “transform a desert continent, thaw the frozen poles, and make the whole world one smiling Garden of Eden.” Militarily, that power has threatened the opposite, with its ability to make deserts out of gardens on an unparalleled scale. Idealists hoped that, in civil garb, it might redress the balance, providing a cheap, plentiful, reliable and safe source of electricity for centuries to come. But it has not. Nor does it soon seem likely to.

Looking at nuclear power 26 years ago, this newspaper observed that the way forward for a somewhat moribund nuclear industry was “to get plenty of nuclear plants built, and then to accumulate, year after year, a record of no deaths, no serious accidents—and no dispute that the result is cheaper energy.” It was a fair assessment; but our conclusion that the industry was “safe as a chocolate factory” proved something of a hostage to fortune. Less than a month later one of the reactors at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine ran out of control and exploded, killing the workers there at the time and some of those sent in to clean up afterwards, spreading contamination far and wide, leaving a swathe of countryside uninhabitable and tens of thousands banished from their homes. The harm done by radiation remains unknown to this day; the stress and anguish of the displaced has been plain to see.

A technology for a more expensive world

For nuclear to play a greater role, either it must get cheaper or other ways of generating electricity must get more expensive. In theory, the second option looks promising: the damage done to the environment by fossil fuels is currently not paid for. Putting a price on carbon emissions that recognises the risk to the climate would drive up fossil-fuel costs. We have long argued for introducing a carbon tax (and getting rid of energy subsidies). But in practice carbon prices are unlikely to justify nuclear. Britain's proposed carbon floor price—the equivalent in 2020 of €30 ($42) a tonne in 2009 prices, roughly four times the current price in Europe's carbon market—is designed to make nuclear investment enticing enough for a couple of new plants to be built. Even so, it appears that other inducements will be needed. There is little sign, as yet, that a price high enough to matter can be set and sustained anywhere.

This article appeared in The Economist so please click here if you wish to it in full.

 

 

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