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Today, nuclear plants employ multiple safety systems which alone account for about a quarter of the capital costs. What about solar and wind energy for electricity generation?, asks Melford Ita.

Main image: Solar energy is environment friendly; silent, requires no fuel and does not pollute

Inset: Germany leads the world in wind energy generation and applications

With growing concerns over the potential hazard of a nuclear accident, spent fuel management and the fortuitous release of radioactive materials, it is wise to debate the role of nuclear power in terms of future energy policies. In April last year, the British government said in its effort to meet the targets on climate change, it would put nuclear power back on the agenda.

Provided they meet costs and waste concerns, Britain's Conservative Party - the Tories - support the construction of new nuclear stations. The Liberal Democrats, however, oppose the idea. The Tory shadow environment secretary, Tim Yeo, argued that the problem of carbon emissions could not be tackled if existing nuclear power stations were not replaced. "Nuclear power can play a role in addressing this problem providing it is cost-effective and can satisfy concerns about waste disposal," he explained.

According to Norman Baker, the environment spokesperson of the British Liberal Democrats, turning to nuclear power to tackle climate change is "like jumping from the frying pan to the fire". "Nuclear power may not contribute to carbon emissions, but it generates tonnes of radioactive wastes costing billions to store and will pose a risk to humans for thousands of years after disposal," he added.

Concurring with Baker, Darren Johnson of the UK's Green Party said nuclear reactors had an operational life of between 30 and 40 years but created waste that lasted "thousands" of years. "It is barking mad to consider nuclear power as part of a sustainable energy policy," he opined.

In November 2005, Tony Blair, the British prime minister, said "nuclear power is of course a difficult and challenging issue, but that is like most strategies to decide and what we actually need is a serious open and democratic debate, not one conducted by protests or demonstrations to stop people from having their freedom to express their views". Blair's view is that Britain needs more power whilst warming the planet less. Currently, 14 nuclear power stations generate 20% of Britain's electricity, but by 2023 all but one are due to close.

Incidentally, Germany (which has a great deal more nuclear plants than Britain) is allegedly phasing out its power stations. Some believe that wind, wave, and solar power can fill the gap.

Nuclear power generation uses uranium - named after the planet Uranus - to produce electricity. When an extra neutron is added to the nucleus of a uranium atom, it splits releasing heat energy. During splitting, several neutrons are released; these collide with another nucleus, causing further fission of uranium atoms, which in turn lead to chain reactions. During fission, heat converts water to steam, which turns a turbine thus generating electricity.

Uranium was discovered in pitchblende a mineral - in 1789 by the German chemist, Martin Klaproth. Formed about 6.6 billion years ago in the super novae, uranium is a heavy, dense metal with an abundant source of concentrated energy; a tonne can produce as much electricity as 2,000 tonnes of coal.

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