Categories: Energy issues / PR issues / Trust and reputations / UK nuclear future

29 November 2009


A gung-ho argument for nuclear power

BBC Newsnight recently claimed that UK government plans to build a new generation of nuclear power stations to fill the energy gap by 2020 are hopelessly optimistic. The industry responded by claiming it will be on time and on budget. It’s a phoney debate on both sides.

At the moment we a have a theatrical clash of positions. It goes something like this. The Finnish reactor currently being built – which is an example of the type the UK hopes to build – is already three years behind schedule and 3bn euros (£2.71bn) over budget. So what hope a UK nuclear programme being timely or affordable? Ah, responds the UK’s Nuclear Industry Association (NIA):

“The industry is confident that we can have the first new stations operating in the UK by the end of 2017. The UK’s innovative approach of full design assessment prior to any construction means that we will avoid many of the delays which can be seen elsewhere in the world”.

Then up pops the British regulator, Kevin Allars of the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII),  to say he’s every bit as tough as his colleagues in Finland (not that he’s saying regulatory success equals delay) and, just to prove his point, agrees there’s never been a reactor built to time or budget in the UK.

The truth is that neither the regulator nor the industry has a helpful position. Neither does anything to enhance the reputation of the industry or to advance its case in the public domain. Rather they do much to knock the industry’s credibility and to bewilder the public. So how do we move things along?

The real debate should begin with why we need nuclear energy in the first place. At the top of nearly everyone’s list right now is fighting global warming (see UK Energy Secretary’s Ed Miliband’s recent national policy review statement). I fear this is the argument grabbed by industry’s PRs. It’s a dead end.

That’s not because global warming isn’t happening. It is not even because those most worried about AGW (anthropogenic global warming) are often those most opposed to to nuclear power. Nor is it because all ten sites identified in the UK face worries about GW-driven coastal erosion, rising seas, warming cooling water and storms. No, it runs deeper than that.

The trouble is that if dealing with climate change is ever taken seriously enough to panic, the major response is likely to be to aim seriously to reduce electricity demand. Bang would go the major benefit of nuclear energy. It is, after all, a virtually limitless secure energy supply source which boosts output and satisfies demand.

If AGW is taken seriously, the argument for an expensive and tricky source of energy would be commensurately somewhere between very weak and politically unfeasible.

Nukes don’t fit well into a no-growth-to-low energy low carbon unambitious world. But that’s what the EU is committed to right now (European Commission, Energy Policy for Europe, 10 January 2007, p5). It is an outlook that fits quite well with Greenpeace’s view:

“Gordon Brown very recently committed the UK to generating around 40 per cent of our electricity from renewables by 2020. If he means it, Britain could become a world leader in clean energy and his case for nuclear evaporates.”

So it does. Moreover, Greenpeace also rightly points out that nuclear power can only deliver a 4 per cent cut in carbon emissions some time after 2025 (though I’d hope by 2021). That said, it begs the question why Greenpeace gets het-up over building a few new coal plants today, which must be equally as insignificant in percentage terms (a case of one smart argument undermining a dumb one, I think).

Then there’s the energy gap argument. There certainly is a real threat that the UK’s lights could go out at sometime in the not-so distant future. But is virtually impossible to say when, or under what circumstances this would happen. There are too many variables for that.

For instance, old conventional plant can be made to worker longer than its original planned life. There’s an emerging world network of gas pipelines (and no it is not all about Russia), not to mention liquefied natural gas. Then there are renewables coming on stream, and there’s innovation. And when push comes to shove, as demand exceeds supply, rises in price could be used to dampen demand.

I don’t know what carbon price would seriously dent demand, but I suspect it would dent demand somewhat before it would encourage nuclear power.

Dieter Helm, Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of New College, has captured well how events continually alter the energy landscape in unexpected ways:

“Though the recession has brought a breathing space on the demand side of the equation, it has markedly worsened investment on the supply side. The credit crisis has made it harder and more expensive to finance investment; just when the investment is needed, finance has dried up.”

So how do I size up the debate and advise the nuclear industry to position itself? Well I think its case might go something like this. Britain is in recession, the world is in recession. The Far East is currently getting the edge on the West and it is doing so by not skimping on energy growth when it comes to coal or nuclear power.

The Tories might talk about a new age of austerity but if they want to hold out hope or hold on to power they had better have something more upbeat to offer. That can only be the prospect of economic growth – that requires investment in energy infrastructure and generation on an increasing scale. That supply will need to be secure, on tap on demand (unlike wind) and at a predictable price.

That all speaks to nuclear power strengths. In short, nuclear’s future may be rosy because AGW is not taken seriously, electricity demand is not seriously limited, and there are fears of a serious energy gap especially if it’s decided that AGW matters, but not enough to drive serious (demand-denting) policy.

So who cares if the first couple of UK new nuclear power stations are a little late, over budget and more difficult to build than predicted? That’s life when it comes to making visions come true when it comes to major infrastructure investment. It’s no big deal. For sure, as we build nuclear plants en masse the economies of scale will accrue.

But there’ll be no nuclear revival of significance or true merit so long as the debate remains stuck where it is. It is time to ramp up the nuclear message and link it to economic growth, security, prosperity and hope (a point made well by the authors of Energise! here). It is time to assume that we want a great deal of electricity and at moderate prices (prices only slightly ramped up by carbon taxes) and preferably with an acceptable carbon footprint.

This argument would be gung-ho, cynical, sceptical, realistic. It would be upbeat. Oh dear, what a tough authentic sell.

For the record, I spent almost ten years working in the nuclear industry in the UK, Ukraine and Switzerland, including for the Nuclear Industry Association.

6 responses to “A gung-ho argument for nuclear power”

  1. Heather Yaxley says:

    Paul – your post highlights the real communications issue here. Neither the government nor the nuclear industry are demonstrating they are engaged in a “debate” as you present it. Rather both are evidencing PR as rhetoric – so presenting only a one-sided viewpoint, probably crafted as press agentry ie one-way broadcast through traditional media to the masses. One can also argue that the mass media itself doesn’t tend to do debate well over such complicated issues – hence increasing the likelihood that rhetorical messages will be communicated.

    Debate requires more consideration, respect for other viewpoints, listening and conversing, rather than just issuing messages via a third party. That may well be going on in other ways than the mass media, but unfortunately the public only hears the rhetoric and probably switches off to both sides or takes only a nuclear = good or nuclear = bad message.

  2. Paul Seaman says:

    Heather, I long ago diagnosed the nuclear industry as suffering from battered industry syndrome. However, right now, a little self-confidence and belief would go a long way. Times have changed and are changing still more. There’s shifts in the AGW debate, and there’s a serious discussion around economic growth (which could go to let’s renew with more power generation and nuclear plant or seeing the EU saying let’s give up the chase for growth in Europe and let the Chinese and East go it alone, because we’re knackered). Take your pick – I have.

    My view is that the time is ripe for making the case for a nuclear renaissance. But success is not guaranteed (nuclear is not the only show in town – it is a question of timing). The industry’s myopia could well see the current opportunity slip their grasp – or be realized in part in humiliating style as a series of one-off or two-off new builds are exposed to cost and time-over-runs and ridicule because the industry refused to redefine the terms of debate (a redefinition that – if I am any judge – should appeal to the next generation of UK politicians at least).

  3. Jim Lukaszewski says:

    In the U.S. we are all still waiting for an apology and an explanation for Three Mile Island. The nuclear industry here is acting just as breezy and blustery as in Europe. Once someone actually proposes a facility and looks like they’re serious, you can expect a more than full scale pushback.

    The industry has done nothing to rebuild the public’s trust in themselves or their technology. They run ads with clouds and cows, talk about zero emissions, every thing but the heart of the issue, radioactivity, storage, and significant outside controls, laws, rules, rigorous regulation and third party oversight, plus severe punishment for executives and operators who screw up.

    It’s going to be more like a shoot out at the OK Corral around the U.S. Once the industry begins to master, openness, truthfulness, responsiveness, empathy, transparency and public engagement . . . progress will be possible. We have seen none of that to date. So far its just web sites filled with lists of suck-up politicians and public figures who “support” more nuclear energy, that is, of course, until the first demonstrations begin to be covered on national and international television, the social media explodes, and the activists take up residence outside their homes. This is an industry and a subculture that believes and acts like it still 1952, and the rest if are stupid troublemakers.

    Rather than a “nuclear renaissance” there needs to be a serious wake up call for this industry. The industry needs to find leaders and managers who can genuinely meet people face to face, answer the questions and putting a face on this industry we can all trust. It’s going to take some time, like 5 minutes for every minute wasted since the Three Mile Accident began at 4:00 a.m. on Wednesday, March 28, 1979.

  4. […] why I’ve argued here and here for a new strategy that has more chance of success. In short there’s a great case for […]

  5. Rod Adams says:

    Jim – your comment deserves a far greater response than is possible in just one comment.

    However, I would like to point out that caring nuclear trained workers have managed to produce about 800 billion kilowatt hours of electricity each year at a total production cost averaging less than 2 cents per kilowatt hour. With about 10 percent of the generating capacity in the US, they produce about 20 percent of the electricity that powers our homes, industry and the Internet.

    Since 1992, they have also been using their plants for a very important task of destroying the explosive potential of about 15,000 nuclear warheads. The recycled warhead material has produced about 9% of the electricity used in the US for the past 15+ years.

    If you want some sites that are written by real people with faces, names and personal histories that share why they like nuclear energy, please visit my blog at Atomic Insights and check out the blog roll there.

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights
    Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast
    Founder, Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.
    former Engineer Officer, USS Von Steuben