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Can we afford to abandon nuclear power?

Posted on 18 September 2012

I wonder whether 14 September 2012 will be remembered as the day when global warming finally became irreversible? That might sound alarmist but, on the same day last week, two major news stories collided. First, scientists confirmed that the Arctic sea ice had shrunk to its lowest recorded level. It now covers less than half the area it occupied forty years ago. Many scientists forecast that the North Pole will be completely ice free in the summer months by 2030. We shouldn’t be surprised. The thinning and thawing of polar ice has been documented for many years. On the same day, 18 months after the Fukushima disaster, Japan announced it would be phasing out nuclear power, shutting all 50 of its reactors by 2040. Before Fukushima, Japan derived 30 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power and was planning to increase this to 50 per cent by 2030. The world’s third largest economy and third biggest nuclear generator will now have to increase imports of liquefied natural gas and coal - it is already the world’s biggest importer of both. Japan’s bold move follows Germany, which announced its own phase-out of nuclear power last year, closing half its nuclear plants immediately and promising to replace the rest with renewable energy over the next decade. Even France, which generates three quarters of its electricity from nuclear power, plans to reduce this to 50 per cent by 2025. What might this anti-nuclear shift mean for global energy sources? It’s a mixed picture. Renewable energy technology should benefit, as demand for renewables from major economies will grow in order to replace nuclear power and to meet low carbon targets. Gas prices might rise so there will be more commercial pressure to exploit shale gas reserves, prolonging our dependence on hydro-carbons. My own view? I worry that we don’t have the luxury of time to reject low carbon fuel sources that are already proven at scale. Of course, safety and waste disposal are massive issues that need continual focus. But it’s a big gamble to believe that we can convert to a mainly renewable energy economy in time to reverse global warming, much as though I’d love that to happen.

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