Like it or not, nuclear is an essential, if temporary, solution to our power needs. But this time, let’s not design the stations as ominous concrete hulks
The debate surrounding nuclear power really is of our time. It is about as complex and contradictory an issue as you can get. And still it divides people into opposing camps: Greenpeace, for example, is planning a legal challenge to the government’s public consultation, which it says was a sham. But the one point on which everyone will agree is that we are in a bind.
It is perhaps a measure of our political and scientific apathy over the past few generations that we have ended up at this point at all. In the sixties we believed in the future of science, buildings on the Moon and of global peace. Our beliefs now are more reactionary, in every sense of the word; they are more cautious, conservative and reactive rather than initiating. As a society we seem to have lost faith in the future, except when it comes to domestic technology, where we can’t lap it up fast enough.
Of course, the ideal way forward on the energy issue would be to feel secure in relying on clean, renewable energy sources. But at the moment this only accounts for 3% of our energy production and there is absolutely no certainty that a significant increase in production could be achieved before our existing power stations are decommissioned. Without question this is owing to the lack of money and research thrown at the problem over the past 50 years.
But it is never too late, although it does seem there is little we can do in the immediate future. While we should give priority to the search for breakthroughs and to refining and perfecting alternative technologies, this takes time, and right now we are facing an energy crisis. For real breakthroughs to happen, of the kind that we cannot now imagine but that could make the difference, you have to believe in science enough to allow research in the abstract. As the physicist Brian Cox said in The Sunday Times recently: “The invention of the electric motor was not driven by someone looking for an alternative to horses, it was Faraday messing about in a lab with magnets and wires.”
Another case in point is the work at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (founded in 1954 to give Europe a world class facility for fundamental physics research) where an experiment is being planned that could unlock the secrets of the universe. By turning a huge amount of energy into a small amount of mass, in other words using Einstein’s E=mc2 equation backwards, the scientists at CERN may make the blinding breakthroughs that we need. This kind of quest is the way forward, but it has a time frame of its own making, is unpredictable and is certainly not a quick fix.
What we need now is an interim solution; we have no choice. Clean, nuclear power – taking into account the embodied energy of uranium mining, understanding the dangers of accidents and problems associated with storing radioactive waste – is still less risky than not going down the nuclear route. It is salutary and takes a degree of humility to accept that in the 50 years since the first nuclear power station was commissioned, we have found no better solution.
We need an interim solution; we have no choice. Clean, nuclear power is still less risky than not going down the nuclear route
Providing there is an equal commitment to research, I support the government’s nuclear stance. And I support the proposed planning reforms that will speed up such construction. There seems little point in having a strong and decisive fuel policy if you are not prepared to see it realised in the quickest possible time (I question the value of the public inquiries that delayed Sizewell B and Terminal 5 by years – and at what a cost!). Creating an independent, economic and reliable energy source is so crucial to our way of life as to demand exceptions to the rule.
So what will these new nuclear power stations look like? Existing structures have a negative iconography – foreboding and without artistry – but they are huge public edifices that can be seen for miles. And yet almost no consideration has been given to the way they look. We have a rich heritage of industrial architecture – Peter Behrens’ factories played a central role in the evolution of German modernism and Gilbert Scott’s power station is now Tate Modern. These structures were icons of their time, symbolic of the power of the future – why not nuclear, too?
Architects can make a huge contribution to the design of nuclear power stations. The derisory might call it a re-branding exercise. Well, you know what? Whether you like it or not, branding has become a necessary and, dare I say it, meaningful part of our visual culture. It changes the way we perceive things and it changes the way we think about ourselves in relation to them. Images of power stations are by nature iconic. Why shouldn’t a nuclear power station be a thing of beauty and power, that communicates both optimism and human frailty, that speaks of our time and of our future? I’m up for it.
Amanda Levete is a partner in Future Systems