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Is the UK having the right discussion on energy or only the right now discussion?

By Katrina Kelly

The topic that has dominated the recent UK party conferences and energy debates is Ed Miliband’s proposal to freeze energy prices. Although the discussion has become focused on the policy itself, many industry experts have gone further to question why Ed Miliband made theproposal at all.

The reason can be summed up quite easily: our demand exceeds our supply and customers are increasingly furious at increasing energy prices.

The US is currently enjoying increased stability in its energy markets thanks to the advent of shale gas. Indeed, politicians are demanding that the US exports natural gas to help with the UK’s problem. Can a sustainable solution be developed using the experiences of our neighbours across the channel or across the Atlantic?

France generates over 75% of its energy from nuclear power. 17% of this is from recycled nuclear power – almost as much as the entire amount of nuclear power generated by the United States and the United Kingdom. Even more interestingly, France retains the lowest energy prices in Europe and has one of the lowest levels of CO2 emissions per capita from electricity generation.

Although the variance in nuclear power production might be attributed to lack of technical capabilities in the US and the UK, when we look at the vast amount of organisations and resources in these energy-consumed countries it becomes apparent that there must be a reason why nuclear generation is viewed so negatively. The media play a key role in communicating the technical concepts and the risks involved.

The media have controlled the dialogue relating to nuclear spent fuel, giving nuclear power an overall negative reputation. The danger of the media focusing on such sensationalist reporting is as serious as the media constructing the wrong conversation around climate change. The conversation around nuclear fuel has led to the public being less well informed about the range of risks associated with it and basing their power preferences on a lack of understanding of strategy and supply.

We can see the influence of such outlets in the discussion around nuclear spent fuel, or nuclear waste. The media consistently refer to the geological disposal of the fuel as contributing to “waste dumps”. The argument that the waste produced from nuclear power generation is less sustainable than waste produced from other fuel types is questionable. Nuclear is the only power source available that is responsible for 100% of its waste. Yet with the increased emphasis on carbon reductions, one would assume that the waste from other energy sources (carbon dioxide) would receive the same amount of negative media attention as nuclear spent fuel does.Storage options exist for spent nuclear fuel rods that work preferably in geological disposal, similar to the concept of carbon-capture-and storage. The difference? The waste generated by nuclear has the potential to be reused and to regenerate energy whereas carbon cannot.

The main problem for the nuclear industry is a lack of understanding in the public and it is easy to see why this is so. The Fukushima incident has made a majority of the public afraid of the dangers of radiation from pools. However, what the public is not aware of is the increase in available technology in nuclear spent fuels and the effects this has on risk reduction within the nuclear supply-chain.

New uses of spent fuel can help to decrease risk within the supply-chain at many stages: in waste management, in transport, and most importantly, in bringing stakeholder support. By communicating the end product of nuclear power simply as spent fuel we can begin to hold a more balanced discussion about the future energy mix in the UK. With increasing costs in efficiency standards, and the uncertainty of the true costs associated with shale gas, the UK needs to ensure that it is considering all options for a sustainable power grid.

Jane Fiona Cumming will be speaking on behalf of Article 13 at the European Spent Fuel Strategy Forum this Friday, October 11 hosted by Nuclear Energy Insider. If you are interested in attending please contact Elizabeth Demestiha at or click here for more information.

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