Last night's TV revelations about increased cancer risks among people who live near the closed-down Trawsfynydd nuclear power station in north Wales reopened the debate about nuclear power. Here DR ROBERT ALLAN, a senior lecturer in environmental science at Huddersfield University looks at the energy issue

THE Prime Minister has stated that generation of electricity by nuclear power is under very serious consideration by the Government.

A statement that is somewhat premature, given that the Energy Review is still ongoing and the content remains unpublished.

The statement has been roundly vilified by pressure groups and commentators opposed to nuclear power.

Undoubtedly, this is a tactic to steer the debate about our energy requirements in the future. And it's a debate that is long overdue if we are to develop economically, provide for our social needs and protect our environment in a manner which will not jeopardise our children's future.

As a society, we have seen a dramatic increase in our energy usage, which has brought innumerable benefits, but at a cost in economic terms, in political capital and to the environment.

We are now more aware of our environmental footprint than ever before but we seem increasingly powerless to improve the situation.

Our current position is a consequence of flawed energy policies over the last 50 years, where successive governments have failed to plan for our long-term energy needs.

Political dogma and prejudice have conspired to neuter our energy policy, and the free market has been left to respond to our needs.

Naturally, companies seek to maximise profits in the short-term, and there's nothing wrong with this provided that there is sufficient direction from government to ensure our long-term requirements.

The world faced a major oil crisis in 1973. France responded by investing in nuclear power, the UK buoyed by North Sea oil and existing coal and nuclear generation facilities did very little!

Since that crisis, the world has changed. We are now more aware of the impact our activities have on the environment, and as a consequence, the UK has agreed targets to cut CO2 emissions, although some view them as lacking ambition, and others as unachievable.

Industry will face the main burden of coping with these limits. You and I, in our daily lives, don't, and generally, we remain blissfully unaware of the impact our lifestyles have on the environment.

Our economy requires energy in order to sustain itself, and most of our electricity comes from the combustion of fossil fuels, which are becoming increasingly expensive as the price is affected by geo-political factors.

Oil drives our economy and its acquisition leads to commercial and political activities which are questionable morally, ethically and politically.

Why are we really involved in Iraq? Why do we support US foreign policy in the Middle East and deal with the despotic regimes of the former Soviet Republics in Central Asia?

So what are the future options and what could nuclear power contribute?

Well, it's a fact that nuclear power could make a massive contribution to our energy needs. It's a reliable "base-load supplier" which can provide electricity 24 hours a day, 365 days a year irrespective of weather conditions, and large quantities of electricity can be generated with minimal emissions of CO2.

Obviously, the costs of bringing in a nuclear programme would easily run into the billions, but this would be offset by the savings that would be made in years to come - a case of "pay now, save later".

New designs would be introduced which would make the new plants more efficient and far cheaper to construct than the older designs, and this would naturally stimulate the engineering and construction sectors of our economy. Unlike the old reactors, they would be designed with ease of deconstruction in mind.

All very positive, but the flip-side, the huge PR programme to win over a generally sceptical public.

As a general concept, people are quite receptive to nuclear power as a future energy supply, provided it's "not in their backyard" and then there's the problem of what to do with the waste! It's all a real public relations problem for the Government. No wonder Tony Blair has started early.

In general terms, the UK has a very good record for nuclear safety, and although there have been minor "incidents", the industry is generally well run and highly regulated.

But if the Prime Minister ever needed a reminder of the mountain to be climbed, the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster last month clearly focuses the attention on the potential for catastrophe when a catch is dropped in this industry.

The UK couldn't just rely on nuclear power in the future, the potential for "renewables", like wind, wave and solar power, will also need to be examined. None of these are viable alternatives at present, but with investment they could make a contribution in the future.

They cannot replace the output of a major power station, but if applied at a local scale, they could help reduce every household's energy consumption.

Again, there would be much opposition to overcome and this would also take another 10 to 20 years to come on stream.

An unforeseen consequence of the coal strike is the existence of massive coal reserves, especially in the north of England.

These can be exploited and with the introduction of new-build plants, which use clean coal technology, air pollution can be drastically reduced. The technology already exists, it just needs the investment.

One rather depressing thought is that the reductions in CO2 emissions that we may make will be dwarfed by the impact of the expanding economies of China, India and Russia. We will certainly need our politicians to act like statesmen to reach a global consensus.

The debate about the merits of nuclear power and renewables has to take place. The politicians, pressure groups and commercial interests have to work together to resolve the issues. Indeed, we as individuals are going to have to make sacrifices. So what are you prepared to do?

One thing we can do in the short-term involves energy conservation which has to be taken seriously by everyone!

* At present usage, there are 50 years left of low-cost known uranium reserves. Other ideas include extraction from seawater and granite and the use of thorium which is three times more abundant than uranium.

* The average nuclear power station produces 20-30 tonnes of spent fuel a year. The US Environmental Protection Agency says the spent nuclear fuel will no longer pose a threat to public health and safety after 10,000 years of radioactive decay.

* Current light water reactors make relatively inefficient use of nuclear fuel. More efficient designs would reduce the amount of waste material.