Why Britain doesn't need nuclear power

It is shameful the UK languishes at the bottom of the renewable energy league despite our huge resou

Three years ago I lost quite a few friends by writing an article for the New Statesman suggesting that new nuclear plants, while not an energy panacea, could have a role in Britain's future. Earlier this month, the government, too, lost a few green friends by completing its long-heralded volte-face on the nuclear issue.

The announcement was met with predictable howls of indignation from the Green Party and from Greenpeace. Clearly, the issue is just as polarised today as it was when I first tackled it in May 2005. Both sides are still throwing out biased information to support preconceived positions, leaving the public confused and dismayed. However, polls show that public opinion is shifting: most people are no longer anti-nuclear, largely because of fears about climate change and energy security.

Some of the anti arguments are also obviously wrong, and don't get any less so simply because they are constantly repeated. I keep hearing that nuclear is not low-carbon because of the greenhouse gases emitted during the construction of plants and refining and transportation of fuel. But the same criticism goes for any centralised power generator. The same goes for the argument, often heard from Greenpeace, that nuclear displaces only moderate amounts of CO2 because it generates only electricity, not energy, and is therefore irrelevant for reducing emissions from heating or transport. True, but you could make the same case against wind or solar (they don't).

Nor is it fair to dismiss nuclear as simply "too expensive". If E.ON, RWE or Npower is convinced that new reactors will provide a fair return on a hefty capital investment, that is their decision. In a free market, we don't need environmental groups to second-guess energy investment decisions made in every corporate boardroom. Environmental groups are supposed to focus on factors other than value for money.

Still, the UK is endowed with some of the best renewable resources in the world (particularly wind and wave, as well as tidal) and could become both a technology market leader and a major energy exporter if only the political will and economic muscle could be mobilised to make this happen. The proposal by the Energy Secretary, John Hutton, in December - to open our seas to 33 gigawatts of offshore wind energy (enough to power all the UK's homes) - is a welcome sign that government thinking is shifting in this direction. The last thing we need now is for this momentum to be lost because of a huge diversion of political energy into justifying new nuclear power stations and battling environmentalists. Nuclear reactors can be built anywhere, and make far more sense in countries where renewables are less freely available than here. Because of our geographical position and shallow continental shelves, we could be the Saudi Arabia of windpower. It is countries like China that should be encouraged to construct a fleet of new reactors, in order to try to wean them off the dirtiest and most dangerous fuel of all: coal.

The worst of all possible options would be to allow new-build coal on our own shores. Not only would that put us in a weak position for lecturing the Chinese, but it would commit billions of pounds of investment into an energy source that will produce millions of tonnes of CO2 over the decades ahead. Companies such as E.ON, which is proposing two new coal-fired units at its Kingsnorth plant, try to wriggle out of this contradiction by claiming that their new coal-power stations will be "capture-ready". But if they really believe in carbon capture and storage as a solution to fossil-fuel emissions, they should build it now. E.ON and its competitors should be encouraged to invest their billions in wind, wave and tidal power instead - with government regulatory support and subsidy as necessary.

It is utterly shameful that the UK languishes at the bottom of the renewable energy league despite our huge resources. We need to turn this situation around, and quickly. Nuclear power is fine in principle, but it is not a priority for us.

Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Art is the new activism