David King’s misplaced enthusiasm over nuclear

Enthusiasm has a way of blinding you to glaring inconsistencies in your arguments. David King is an enthusiast for nuclear power. As chief scientist he was an important influence in persuading the government to buy into the clever French plan to make British householders and businesses subsidise Areva and EDF, the state-owned companies at the heart of their nuclear industry.

His latest contribution to the nuclear debate is reported in today’s papers (Telegraph and Guardian) . It is, as usual, very enthusiastic. He is dismissive of the government’s paltry plan for up to 8 new nuclear power stations. He wants 26. 

In the light of the diminishing likelihood that we will get any this is ambitious indeed. But it is still not enough to sate his appetite for all things nuclear. He also wants a massive increase in our capacity to recycle used nuclear fuel.

To justify this he makes an argument that is patently false. The world’s supplies of uranium will begin to run out in 2023, he argues.  This is simply nonsense as a quick look at the mining industry’s current inventory of new uranium mining projects makes clear.

He argues that to protect ourselves from this supposed shortage we should recycle our existing stock of plutonium. This has been expensively produced by unnecessarily recycling used nuclear fuel and is currently a very expensive waste management problem.

We should build a plant to use this plutonium to make mixed oxide fuel (MOX) for new reactors. Leave aside the fact that the reactors to use this fuel might not materialise. And that even if the reactors were built, the operators would be reluctant to use MOX fuel because it is more expensive and more difficult to manage. This is actually something we have already tried.

We spent one and a half billion pounds building a plant to make MOX fuel a few years ago. It has never worked properly and was recently closed. David King wants us to try again. But to do so he must persuade the government that this option is better than a number of rivals, one of which is a thorium fuelled reactor.

Ah, says King, that is an untested technology:  “We should not be guinea pigs here.” There must be something strange about proximity to nuclear matters or over-exposure to Whitehall double-think that leads you to argue that we should prefer a technology that has been tried and failed to one that has yet to be tried.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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