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Environmentalist: U.K.'s nuclear intentions good, plan is bad

Posting in Energy

Back to the future. Nuclear supporters question why Britain is committing to conventional nuclear technology, when superior alternatives exist, some of which were shunted aside decades ago. Above, the building where in the 1960s Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the U.S. developed a molten salt reactor, considered by many a safer and more effective alternative to today's reactors.

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It's been a momentous week for nuclear power, as a French-led consortium reached a deal with the U.K. government to build Britain's first nuclear reactors in nearly 20 years.

But no sooner did French utility EDF get a long-sought guarantee of a minimum commercial price for the electricity that it will generate at the two reactors in the west of England, than nuclear supporters from both the left and the right assailed the plan.

Their objection: The project was missing a chance to pursue superior and less expensive nuclear reactors and instead was set to spend £16 billion ($25.9 billion, an amount that has already risen over recent estimates) on conventional reactors -- essentially, the sort that the industry has deployed for about 50 years.

The critics included well-known environmental journalist and author George Monbiot. Monbiot is among a growing list of environmentalists who advocate nuclear power as a low-carbon, sustainable energy source. Writing in the left leaning Guardian newspaper, he singled out two other reactor types - integral fast reactors and liquid flouride thorium reactors - as better alternatives at the site, known as Hinkley Point C.

"The clunky third-generation power stations chosen for Hinkley C already look outdated, beside the promise of integral fast reactors and liquid fluoride thorium reactors," Monbiot wrote. He pointed out that fast reactors can burn nuclear waste as fuel. Liquid reactors - also known as molten salt reactors - also augur improvements in waste, as well as providing operational and safety benefits.

"To build a plant at Hinkley Point which will still require uranium mining and still produce nuclear waste in 2063 is to commit to 20th-century technologies through most of the 21st," Monbiot added.

Meanwhile in The Telegraph, traditionally a conservative newspaper, columnist Christopher Booker denounced the cost of Hinkley Point and advocated less expensive small reactors - so called "modular reactors" - that can be factory built and dotted around the country in place of the massive Hinkley Point machines and of planned wind farms.

Booker said that "mini-nukes" provide "the possibility of producing almost unlimited quantities of reliable, CO2-free electricity."

The EDF group, which includes a significant investment from China, received a price guarantee of £92.50 ($150) per megawatt hour, which as Booker pointed out is almost double the current rate of £50 ($81) from fossil fuel plants.

Monbiot and Booker echo my views, expressed here often on SmartPlanet. The nuclear industry needs to shift away from the VHS technologies that have defined it for half a century, and move to superior Betamax alternatives.

Photo is from Oak Ridge National Laboratory via Wikimedia

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— By on October 23, 2013, 10:22 PM PST

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure