Nuclear power investment must continue in the UK if it is to tackle carbon emissions, according to a new report.
The study by the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment (SSEE) at the University of Oxford outlines possible scenarios for a long-term nuclear strategy which is says could boost the economy by up to £10 billion.
Professor Sir David King, SSEE director and former UK government Chief Scientific Advisor, said that despite the Japanese nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant the case was still strong for nuclear development.
"Within two minutes of the earthquake sixteen nuclear power stations that felt the earthquake were switched off. Every one of them acted as they were meant to act so the fission process was terminated, including the Fukushima plant," he said.
"When we look at lessons learned in Japan, we are looking at Generation II power stations that on the whole responded well to the crisis situation, while clearly there is an ongoing clean up issue that is going to continue around Fukushima for some time.
"Not one person has died of radiation in the process while 15,000 people have died from the tsunami itself, and to put it into context in the same week 30 coal miners died. So the generation of electricity using coal-fired stations is actually far more dangerous in practice than nuclear power generation.
"Is there a safer form of electricity historically than nuclear power? The answer is no."
As Chief Scientific Advisor and Head of the Government Office for Science, Sir David King helped to raise the profile of tackling climate change within government and was also instrumental in creating the £1 billion Energy Technologies Institute.
He said the SSEE study, delayed for publication after the Fukushima disaster, considered dealing with the legacy of old power plants and material as well as the creation of a new generation of nuclear reactors.
"We have accumulated a large amount of usable uranium and a significant stockpile of plutonium, around 100 tonnes, at Cumbria and separately within government there has been a discussion about how we fill the energy gap over the next ten years. We have brought these two things together in the report.
The study examined four possible scenarios involving the use of existing and new facilities at Sellafield in west Cumbria, assessing them according to their likely cost, risk and potential return, with the first suggesting that the nuclear waste materials should be initially stored before being disposed.
The remaining three scenarios propose converting plutonium stockpiles into Mixed Oxide fuel (MOX) at a new purpose-built plant in Sellafield, which would then be sold to utility companies.
Sir King said he was in favour of this approach as it had the benefit of both recycling the material for further use while removing the stockpile of plutonium.
Professor Gregg Butler, the report lead author and Visiting Business Fellow at the SSEE, said that despite the costs of constructing new facilities and recycling nuclear materials there would still be a huge boost to the economy through the value of fuels produced and job creation.
"It's the opportunity to realign the UK nuclear mission to minimise costs while maximising job security and opportunity," he said.
Responding to the report, CBI deputy director-general Dr Neil Bentley said: “The terrible events in Japan are a horrific reminder of why safety has to be the number one concern when it comes to nuclear energy.
“At the same time, nuclear has to remain a solution to fulfilling our objectives to secure a future low carbon, affordable energy mix for the UK.
"The UK’s nuclear legacy must be addressed in a safe, cost-effective manner and this report is an important step towards new nuclear being an even more secure low-carbon source of energy, in a world of rising uranium prices."
However concerns over the safety of nuclear energy have been highlighted by reports this week that minuscule levels of radioactive iodine from the Fukushima plant have been detected in Oxfordshire and Glasgow.
The Health Protection Agency said that monitoring stations had picked up the "minutest traces of iodine", but that there was no public health risk as the levels are extremely low.
Greenpeace's chief scientist, Dr Doug Parr, has criticised the scenarios of reprocessing nuclear waste to be turned into fuel which he said would create even more nuclear waste.
"Reprocessing would also lead to increased multi-billion pound taxpayer handouts to the nuclear industry, and that's before you consider what it would mean for our ability to constrain nuclear weapons proliferation around the world," he said.
"It's completely possible for more than 80 per cent of Europe's power to come from clean, renewable sources and it simply isn't necessary to take on the risks inherent with using plutonium.
"If ministers choose to meet our energy needs through efficiency and renewable resources, it would spark a clean tech jobs boom which would help boost our economy and protect our environment."
Here's more information on Japan radioactivity detected in the UK
For the full report from the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment visit www.smithschool.ox.ac.uk/nuclearreport2011/nuclearreport.html