Nuclear plants remain one of the safest ways to make electricity, and Britain should not allow Japan's nuclear crisis to delay its new build plans, scientists said on Tuesday.
According to a report by Oxford University's Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment (SSEE), Britain could save billions of pounds if it built new reactors quickly enough to use spent fuel from its existing plants.
But the chance to cut costs and minimise safety risks of managing huge stocks of uranium and plutonium that Britain's plants have accumulated over decades of low-carbon power generation could be missed if safety fears slow construction.
These fears have prompted calls to reconsider the use of nuclear energy, and comments by Britain's Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg on Tuesday suggested its future may be less certain.
Yet the report insisted nuclear power was safer than ever.
"Despite the terrible events in Japan, the economic, safety and carbon case for a new build programme in the UK has never been stronger," said David King, former government chief scientific adviser and director of the SSEE.
"The renaissance in new nuclear build creates an advantageous way of using these legacy materials as fuel for new nuclear plants ... By converting it into a fuel, you offset the cost to the British public of dealing with our legacy waste. It's a massive offset."
COAL MINE DANGER
The report, led by Gregg Butler, professor of sustainable development at the University of Manchester, estimates that promptly building new nuclear plants to replace Britain's old reactors could save about 10 billion pounds ($16 billion) by re-using fuel that would otherwise have to be stored safely.
However, speaking to British reporters in Mexico, Clegg said recent events could raise the cost of nuclear power.
"We have always said there are two conditions for the future of nuclear power -- it has to be safe and cannot let the taxpayer be ripped off. We could be in a situation now where the potential liabilities are higher, which makes it more unlikely to find private investment," British media quoted him as saying.
If Britain were to seek public funding for nuclear plants it could prompt conflict in Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative-Liberal Democrat ruling coalition.
Entering the coalition, Clegg's Liberal Democrats pledged to oppose any new subsidies for nuclear power, and he said there would be no turning back on this agreement.
France and the United States are to help Japan in its battle to contain radiation from a nuclear complex crippled by the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck earlier this month.
King, who as Britain's chief scientist from 2000-2007 pushed for governments around the world to do more about global warming, said the anti-nuclear reaction to the effects of the tsunami in Japan could harm the fight against climate change.
He called for a reality check on the relative dangers of nuclear power and its fossil fuel alternatives.
"As far as we know, not one person has died from radiation in the process and 15,000 from the tsunami itself," he said, adding that the logical response to the disaster would be to protect human life from the far more dangerous tsunami.
"Let's put this in context -- in that same week 30 coal miners died. The generation of electricity using coal-fired power stations is far more dangerous per kilowatt hour than nuclear power generation," he said.
"Is there a safer form of electricity production historically than nuclear power? The answer is no."
Some environmentalists say nuclear power should be replaced with renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind power.