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.