LONDON (Reuters) - Nuclear plants remain one of the safest ways to make electricity, and Britain should not allow Japan's tsunami-provoked problems to delay its new build plans, UK 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 builds new reactors quickly enough to use spent fuel from its existing plants.
But the opportunity to cut costs and minimize safety risks of managing the huge stocks of uranium and plutonium that Britain's existing plants have accumulated over decades of low-carbon power generation could be missed if safety fears slow construction.
"Despite the terrible events in Japan, the economic, safety and carbon case for a new build program 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."
The report, led by Gregg Butler, professor of sustainable development at the University of Manchester, estimates that promptly building a new fleet of nuclear plants to replace Britain's decades-old reactors could save about 10 billion pounds ($16 billion) by re-using the fuel that would otherwise have to be stored safely.
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 is too risky and should be replaced with renewable sources of generating energy such as solar and wind power.
(Reporting by Daniel Fineren, editing by Jane Baird)