Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Should new nuclear play a part in meeting our energy needs: a personal view

I believe new nuclear will play a part in meeting our energy needs (Chris Huhne, first annual energy statement to parliament, 27 July 2010)
Today, the UK’s energy secretary, Chris Huhne, outlined how the government will address the issue of energy generation.  The strategy will involve new nuclear energy generation capacity.   

The context for this is relatively simple: the 2008 Climate Change Act commits the UK to an 80% reduction of carbon emission on 1990 levels by 2050.  To meet these reductions, fossil fuel consumption must be reduced, so the question is very simple: what can replace fossil fuels, when, and at what cost. 

If abandoning these commitments is not an option then substituting lower carbon intensive fuels for higher intensive fuels would help, but this is not a sustainable option.  There are new technologies to sequestrate carbon from fossil fuels (CCS) but the technology is uncertain, the method is likely to be costly even if the risks can be reduced and storage proven to be feasible beyond small demonstration projects. 

A more promising option is the use of renewable energy sources, which are becoming more cost effective each year, and will help to diversify the energy mix.  The EU is committed to a target of 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020, but the UK has lagged behind the EU average on renewable energy for some time and on the latest figures, will struggle to contribute to this target.

Renewable energy sources are certainly cleaner and provide very low carbon energy, but even with the substantial increases in investment in these energy sources, they cannot by themselves ensure the other desirable features of the UK’s energy mix i.e. secure supply at an affordable price.

There are likely to be more energy efficient technologies, and energy conservation in the work place, homes and other environments and transportation, which can reduce the demand for energy, but this goes against the observed trend for UK energy consumption.  Other changes in manufacturing and agriculture could have an impact on emissions reduction, but these changes will take time.

This brings me to nuclear energy.  It is, perhaps the most contentious alternative –it is a low carbon energy, based on existing technology, providing security of supply for the next century; however, the costs are contested both in terms of energy generation, decommissioning and other environmental costs.  Existing nuclear energy provides around 20% of the UK’s electricity, and much of this capacity will be removed in the next few years as eleven nuclear plants are due for closure by 2015.  This means that a nuclear-free energy mix will have to find a substantial generation capacity from a low carbon source from somewhere. 

It would seem clear, then, that nuclear must form a part of the UK energy strategy for the foreseeable future, perhaps a substantial part, a point many environmentalists such as James Lovelock, George Monbiot and Mark Lynas concede.

This is not my view.  The problem of energy security is a consequence of inappropriate attitudes towards energy consumption.  Without being forced to pay the full costs of the energy we use there will be no incentive to act boldly.  CCS and nuclear are just ways of deferring this decision.  Let me be clear - the target must be 100% renewable energy by 2050 as this has the lowest environmental impact, which is a key factor in considering sustainability.  This means energy efficiency, reduced consumption, higher prices, an emphasis on investment in renewable energy, changes in key areas such as land use, transportation, manufacturing and construction.  We need to wean ourselves off cheap (i.e. unsustainable) energy and it is likely to be painful, at least at first.  

Is nuclear energy a solution to the UK’s energy needs? In the short run, with a business as usual consumption rate, and with only incremental investment in renewable energy generation, nuclear power will be crucial in maintaining a secure supply.  In the long term I view the solution as paying a fair price for the energy consumed, one that reflects pollution, climate change risk, resource depletion, hazardous waste and other externalities.  This price means that renewable energy sources become economically attractive for large scale energy generation and thus provide incentives for greater investment in R& D, innovation and commercialisation.

If the UK is to achieve secure, clean and affordable energy by 2050, then it must act now, act radically and not defer the issue until it has no choice.  Chris Huhne knows that a policy based on high energy prices and a painful transition is politically unacceptable, so nuclear energy is a convenient option to have for the moment.  He has also announced more support for renewable energy and if many of the problems with renewable sources can be solved by 2020 as a consequence of extra investment and the EU’s 20/2020 commitment, perhaps nuclear energy will be less crucial for the energy mix towards 2050.


  1. Hi Paul,

    Great to hear someone discussing nuclear energy in a calm and objective fashion! We need to do this more. The lifetime of a nuclear power station is 40-60 years, and so reactors built in 2020 would survive until 2060-2080. So I doubt whether it makes sense to build new reactors now and close them down before 2050.

    Massive scaleup of Renewable energy makes more sense when considered on an EU-level than on a purely national level, which would require a lot of storage for wind.

    There's a whole set of issues associated with nuclear power and they probably need discussing individually. http://tinyurl.com/2v5q3dq
    I also think that we should not only think about nuclear 'ideally' or 'realistically' but in terms of our influence on the world, especially with actors who may not share the same ideals.

    In particular, we need a competitor to coal power, especially in China. If a technology can beat coal on cost and convenience we may have a chance of mitigating climate change...

    If governments actively decide which technologies are built, I personally think nuclear is an 'all or nothing' sort of technology. There's a case for eliminating it, and for going full-bent on it like France has, but half-hearted approaches to government procurement are likely to have all of the costs and few of the benefits of scale.

    The UK has adopted a market led approach which is I think a good compromise. It's not clear whether the market will build more nuclear. However, I think the market can do an awful lot over 20 years if provided with strong incentive plus government coordination. We need an awful lot more of all low-carbon technologies, and a massive scaleup of all of them could be achieved with the right policies and coordination.

    See: http://www.outdoor-science.com/?p=482

    One final point is that commentators the UK government should focus on doing nuclear 'right' (I mean this not only in terms of technology, but also institutions). The key risks associated with nuclear technology are associated with weapons proliferation. If the UK managed to entirely separate weapons and proliferation programs and did the power in a way that was universalisable - ie we'd be happy for Iran or Sierra Leone to adopt the same processes, technologies and institutions, then that would be a great contribution to the world.

    There are also a whole load of issues relating to 'sustainability'. I worry that the whole concept lacks rigor and is a 'council to perfection' not especially atuned to solving a critical and messy problem like climate change.

    I think I support seeking *the absence of unsustainability (particularly in specific respects)*. http://stephenstretton.com/a/1/BackToBasics.pdf
    I'm sceptical as to whether a positive notion of sustainability is really particularly useful. Unless sustainability is well defined we are left with the usual public relations greenwash.



  2. P.S. The post above implied I thought there was a case for a British nuclear weapons system (a replacement for Trident). I don't in fact at present believe that a new nuclear weapons program is at all justified morally, strategically or economiucally. The costs of a new Trident program (different figures are quoted, but I believe the full system costs to be something around £60bn) would pay the investment costs of 30GW of nuclear power stations, enough to provide three quarters of our current electricity demand.

  3. Some excellent points - and useful links. Thanks a lot. The scale-up of renewables in the context of the EU is an important point - not just in making it a more robust supply in the energy mix - capacity, security of supply and storage etc, or economies of scale, but even in mundane things such as the expertise that has been developed independently in different countries, which could be a really useful resource if the effort could be coordinated by a series of incentives.