Thursday, April 27, 2006

Time To Cancel That New Scientist Subscription?

I get really tired of the constant and seemingly political whining at New Scientist, which is why I look so skeptically at this story declaring nuclear power to be a dead option.
Until recently, it seemed the wide-scale construction of a new generation of nuclear power plants was inevitable. China is investing in nuclear, after all, as are Japan, Russia and India, so why not the west? Though Germany, Sweden, Spain and Switzerland have forsworn investment in new nuclear plants, other western nations, notably the UK, France and the US, are taking the idea seriously. In August 2005, the US government handed out a range of nuclear subsidies and incentives worth nearly $20 billion. In the UK, Prime Minister Tony Blair has commissioned an energy review with what is widely believed to have a pro-nuclear agenda, marking a move away from the position three years ago when his government said there was no case for nuclear new build. France, which already gets 78 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power, has its eye on starting construction of at least one more plant within the next decade.

In the UK and the US, the case for a nuclear renaissance is on the table mainly because the reactors now generating electricity are coming to the end of their lives. The cry is going up that this will lead to an energy gap: in a few years there won't be enough electricity to go round, and the lights will go out. That's a simplistic analysis, of course. "The idea of a 'gap' is artificial and fails to acknowledge the dynamics of the market system," says Jim Watson, an energy analyst in the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex, UK. The energy markets in these countries will tend to ensure that there will always be electricity to buy and sell, Watson points out. The cost may go up and the sources may change, but the market will quickly adjust by using more electricity derived from coal and gas, for instance.

But why would we want to get rid of nuclear power? I have yet to read of a compelling analysis that definitively points to real economic problems. Just as soon as the lights go out, look for this kind of thinking to change, especially if it's New Scientist's offices.