Expanding Nuclear Power Would Reduce Carbon Emissions

By Kevin McCandless | July 7, 2008 | 8:17 PM EDT

London (CNSNews.com) - As the British government considers the future of nuclear power in Great Britain, a leading environmentalist says the world must embrace the next generation of atomic reactors.

On Thursday, renowned scientist James Martin said that in order to deal with oncoming climate change, the West had to put aside its fear of nuclear power plants and invest heavily in new technology.

Speaking on the launch of his latest book, "The Meaning of the 21st Century," Martin said that fourth-generation "pebble-bed reactors" were the answer to reducing carbon emissions in the next fifty years.

Unlike earlier models, which use traditional fuel rods, this smaller type of reactor is powered by thousands of billiards-sized graphite balls packed with tiny flecks of uranium -- with the radioactive core bathed in inert helium instead of overheated water.

As a result, pebble-bed reactors produce much less waste than nuclear plants today and can be stored much more easily, Martin said.

In addition, in case of a complete cooling system failure, the reactors are designed to avoid a catastrophic meltdown through their low fuel density and relatively smaller size.

Chinese scientists recently built a small, experimental reactor of this sort in Beijing, but an effort to build another model in South Africa has been stalled for the last decade because of court battles by environmental groups.

Though well-intentioned, Martin said that groups such as Greenpeace ultimately are harming the planet by opposing nuclear power.

"In Greenpeace," he said. "There's a knee-jerk reaction to anything nuclear."

Martin, a scientist who made his fortune in computing, has spent much of his life writing about environmental issues. Last year, he donated $111 million to Oxford University to found the James Martin Institute for Science and Civilization --- a school dedicated to studying the problems facing the world.

Despite the lingering negative images surrounding nuclear power, dating back to the horrific 1986 accident at the Chernobyl reactor in the Ukraine, he said the public needed to be convinced that the new generation of atomic power was safe.

Otherwise, he said that developing countries would rely much more heavily on coal-fueled power plants, which would be the true disaster.

"In my mind, the coal power stations that China will build are going to be the true nightmare," he said.

This week, the British chapter of Greenpeace issued a statement saying that there was still no safe means of dealing with nuclear waste -- no matter what type of reactor generated it -- and that the best way to tackle climate change is to decentralize power generation and make it more efficient.

In July, amid protests from environmental groups, the British government released an energy review which said that nuclear power could be an important part of Great Britain's future -- helping to reduce carbon emissions.

The government is now conducting further reviews -- one looking into the regulatory framework under which new reactors would be built -- but ministers have ruled out giving direct subsidiaries.

The last new reactor in the United Kingdom was opened in 1995, and several in the country have been decommissioned in the last few years.

On Friday, Jim Watson, a nuclear energy expert at the University of Sussex, said that power companies are extremely reluctant to built new plants -- particularly given the huge capital investment required at the outset - and the subsequent costs of decommissioning them decades later.

At the very least, he said that nuclear power industry was looking for price guarantees covering the energy they produce from these plants.

Otherwise, power companies would look to invest more in gas and wind power, where the technology was proven and the markets understood.

"My feeling is that the industry still needs [price guarantees]," Watson said. "And I still think they need [them] if they're going to go ahead with it."

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