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Professor David MacKay: Britain ‘must go nuclear’ to control climate
06 October 2009, The Times
London: The [UK] government’s chief scientific adviser on climate change has proposed a quadrupling of Britain’s nuclear power generation to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. Professor David MacKay believes nuclear power could be the only way Britain can meet its soaring demand for electricity while keeping emissions under control. He has calculated that renewable energy sources such as wind and tidal power will never provide more than a fraction of Britain’s electricity needs.
Speaking last week on his first day as chief scientist at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, MacKay set out a vision of how Britain could generate the threefold increase in electricity it needs, with nuclear power at its heart. He cited Sizewell B, Britain’s largest nuclear power station, as a benchmark.
“This plan would involve a fourfold increase in nuclear power over today’s levels,” he said. “So at Sizewell, for example, you would have four Sizewell Bs and at other nuclear sites you would have another four Sizewell Bs, and so on.”
He added: “Britain could never live on its own renewables. If the aim is to get off fossil fuels, we need nuclear power or solar power generated in other countries’ deserts, or both.”
MacKay, who will advise Ed Miliband, the energy secretary, at the climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December, stressed he was not personally pro-or anti-nuclear. “My point is that whatever energy sources we choose, the sums have to add up,” he said.
Britain emits greenhouse gases equivalent to 680m tons of CO2 a year. The government has pledged to cut this to 140m tons by 2050 and has said it wants nuclear power to play a part. In the next few weeks it is due to publish a shortlist of up to 11 sites where nuclear power stations could be built. Most are next to existing installations. The scale of the nuclear programme hinted at by MacKay is far greater than that suggested by ministers, however. There are 10 ageing nuclear stations in the country, with 12 gigawatts of generating capacity — about 15% of Britain’s needs. Two are due to close next year, the rest by 2023.
MacKay’s calculations, set out to an audience of Cambridge academics, are based on a new generation of nuclear power stations supplying 40 to 50 gigawatts of power by 2050. Since modern nuclear power stations are likely to be much more powerful than those built in the past, this suggests fewer than 15 new reactors would be needed. At the heart of his thinking lies a prediction that, by 2050, Britain will need three times more electricity-generation capacity than it has now.
This is partly because the only way to cut the surging emissions from road transport — roughly a third of all UK emissions — is to make most vehicles electrically propelled. Millions of electric vehicles would need regular recharging. MacKay also wants to see an end to the use of gas for central heating and the replacement of boilers with heat pumps that extract heat from the atmosphere. They run on electricity.
“Setting fire to chemicals like gas should be made a thermodynamic crime,” he said. “If people want heat they should be forced to get it from heat pumps. That would be a sensible piece of legislation.”
MacKay said there were other ways of generating the electricity Britain needed. One was to rent swathes of desert from north African countries such as Algeria or Libya, cover them in solar panels and transmit the power to Britain along high-voltage cables. In theory an area the size of Wales could meet all of Britain’s power needs, but the idea is fraught with technical and political problems. It would also leave Britain at the mercy of the countries whose territory contained the equipment.
Another possibility would be carbon capture and storage, in which CO2 emissions are captured before they enter the atmosphere and buried. MacKay said this was an untried technology, however, and should not be relied on.