Blog: Dave LeggettUncomfortable nuclear questions relevant to autos

Dave Leggett | 15 March 2011

The news emerging from Japan about the ongoing problems for the stricken nuclear plant at Fukishima is apparently causing governments around the world to pause for thought about the risks that nuclear plants present. Fair enough. There are undoubtedly going to be some lessons to be learned.

When nuclear plants are safe, they are 'out of mind' quietly generating a whole load of electricity (in Japan it's around 25% of all electricity; in France I believe it's more like 50%). We're all happy to use the power generated and don't spend much time agonising over nuclear safety. The plants rarely go seriously wrong, but when they do go wrong it's a pretty big deal.

When it comes to CO2 emissions, nuclear power's advantages are very clear – it's 'clean' and cheap. But there is this dark downside in dealing with radioactive materials. Maybe the advantages are just too great, given how we want to live, to turn the nuclear dial down. Renewable sources of energy, lovely though they are, can only take us so far given current technologies.

This thorny question of power generation is relevant to the auto industry as more people switch to electric drive. The jokes about 'coal-fired zero emission vehicles' make a very good point. Zero emission at the point of use perhaps, but just how green are you if your EV's electrical energy was generated by a power station that burns fossil-fuels? I personally cringe when a carmaker promoting electric drive vehicles really trowels on the environmentally friendly stuff or leaves 'zero emissions' hanging as some sort of quasi-religious assumption that is not to be challenged.

Energy is a very big question for all of us and there are no easy answers. We're all responsible for it, as energy users. As a society, we need to work out what works best given the way we want to live our lives and with some appreciation of any risks, alongside rigorous processes and systems that can minimise any risks that come with energy usage.

Alas, human history suggests that very occasionally something will happen that cannot be legislated for, whether man-made or not.
   


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