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New doubts over nuclear

Pro-nuclear countries are making slower progress on climate targets
New doubts over nuclear

With the UK’s Hinkley Point deal hanging in the balance, a new study casts fresh doubts over the future of nuclear energy in Europe.

According to researchers at the University of Sussex and the Vienna School of International Studies, a strong national commitment to nuclear energy goes hand in hand with weak performance on climate change targets.

‘Significant doubts’

The study, published in the journal Climate Policy, shows that the most progress towards reducing carbon emissions and increasing renewable energy sources – as set out in the EU’s 2020 Strategy – has been made by nations without nuclear energy or with plans to reduce it.

Conversely, pro-nuclear countries have been slower to implement wind, solar and hydropower technologies and to tackle emissions.

While it’s difficult to show a causal link, the researchers say the study casts significant doubts on nuclear energy as the answer to combating climate change.

‘Looked at on its own, nuclear power is sometimes noisily propounded as an attractive response to climate change. Yet if alternative options are rigorously compared, questions are raised about cost-effectiveness, timeliness, safety and security.

‘Looking in detail at historic trends and current patterns in Europe, this paper substantiates further doubts.

‘By suppressing better ways to meet climate goals, evidence suggests entrenched commitments to nuclear power may actually be counterproductive.’

Professor of Science and Technology Policy at the University of Sussex

Nuclear plans and emissions

The researchers found that the group of European countries with no nuclear energy (such as Denmark, Ireland and Norway) had reduced their emissions by an average of 6% since 2005, and increased renewable energy sources to 26%.

Countries with existing nuclear commitments but with plans to decommission (including Germany, Netherlands and Sweden) fared even better on emissions reductions, which were down 11%. They grew renewable energy to 19%.

Countries with plans to maintain or expand nuclear capacity (such as Bulgaria, Hungary and the UK) only managed a modest 16% renewables share and emissions on average actually went up (by 3%).

‘The analysis shows that nuclear power is not like other energy systems. It has a unique set of risks, political, technical and otherwise, that must be perpetually managed.

‘If nothing else, our paper casts doubt on the likelihood of a nuclear renaissance in the near-term, at least in Europe.’

Professor of Energy Policy and Director of the Sussex Energy Group at the University of Sussex

No turning back?

The UK is a mixed picture. Emissions have been reduced by 16%, bucking the trend of other pro-nuclear countries, but only 5% of its energy comes from renewables. That’s among the lowest in Europe, pipped only by Luxembourg, Malta and the Netherlands.

The team says that the gigantic investments of time, money and expertise in nuclear power plants, such as the proposed Hinckley Point C in the UK, can create dependency and ‘lock-in’ – a sense of ‘no turning back’ in the nation’s psyche.

‘As the viability of the proposed Hinkley plant is once again cast into doubt by the May government, we should recall that — as is true of nuclear fallout — nuclear power’s inordinate expense and risks extend across national borders and current generations.

‘Conversely, cheaper, safer, and more adaptable alternative energy sources are available for all countries.’

Lead author, Vienna School of International Relations

Technological innovation then becomes about seeking ‘conservative’ inventions – that is new technologies that preserve the existing system. This is, inevitably, at the expense of more radical technologies, such as wind or solar.

Click here for more from the University of Sussex.

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