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Nuclear power - yes please?

Updated Friday 15th May 2009

Are we coming to terms with nuclear power - or is a push for reactors masking a need to reduce consumption?

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OK - I'm sorry - more of an essay than a blog post, but I’ve got to get all this off my chest in one go. In the 1980s across Europe you would see stickers with a sparky little cartoon atom character shouting ‘nuclear power - no thanks!'.

There was a minor media flurry when two or three prominent UK environmentalists clustered earlier this year to say 'regretfully I’ve changed my mind – climate change is so big it justifies turning to nuclear power’.

A train carries waste away from the Dungeness nuclear power station Creative commons image Icon JohnGreyTurner under CC-BY-NC-ND licence under Creative-Commons license
A train carries waste away from Dungeness nuclear power station [Image: JohnGreyTurner]

Having been asked several times in the last fortnight what I reckon to this argument I’ve decided to pull my thoughts together into one place. Here are the arguments put by the nuclear public relations folks, with my own response to them:

  • New Jobs! It’ll be French and German companies and technicians that are most likely to benefit from UK growth in nuclear generation, and we'll be paying top whack as there'll be an acute skills shortage if the industry grows as fast as it hopes. And these are very expensive jobs to ‘create’ in the sense that other kinds of energy related investment generate many more.
  • Too Cheap to Meter! (and this time we mean it!) This bold promise was never delivered in the 20th century – on the contrary – nuclear always needed government cash. But everyone anticipates that energy and climate crunches together will see the cost of carbon-based fuels rise and hence the competitiveness of nuclear and renewables increase. Although it’s likely that we'd still need to see central government reaching into its pocket to cover decommissioning/waste issues nuclear is going to become much more competitive. But, it still requires really immense initial capital investment and long time scales.

OK so it may be a French company that’s asking to build them, but it is hardly an investment risk. They’ll only put up the money if prices are guaranteed and waste costs covered by future UK taxpayers. Eggs in several baskets!

Nuclear power plant, Biblis Germany [image by Bigod, some rights reserved] Creative commons image Icon by Bigod, some rights reserved under Creative-Commons license
Nuclear power plant, Biblis Germany.

 The nuclear PR folks are politely pro renewable energy. They suggest it’s good to spread our energy investments. The difficulty with this is that in periods where central government and private investment is under pressure there are opportunity costs carried by any choice. It is simply politically naive to suggest that major commitments to N power will not result in reduced investments in energy efficiency programmes or renewables. Renewables can't do it all & carbon capture and storage are untried and costly! Probably the best card in the N hand. But it assumes that we have to match or grow current levels of energy demand and do nothing to reduce it.

Almost all of developed world society processes and products are 'energy blind'. They developed in an era of very low cost energy and are hugely wasteful. Why not spend the 15 years and many billions we might invest in a decent sized N programme in really aggressive demand-management and clean green re-design of much that we do. Unlike an investment in N power many of these measures would carry plenty of other environmental and social benefits: the collateral benefits of N investment are largely confined to those getting jobs and research funding.

Cleaner than ever!

The PR insists that nuclear power's waste issues were always exaggerated and the greens' criticisms were emotional not rational. Whatever the truth of the matter, the industry must be the last people on the planet that think that human systems are infallible.

radwaste is a classic case study of how we pursue short term interests and discount future generations

Having said that the new systems produce less waste and there are much more convincing ways of dealing with particularly the low level stuff. And we already have a big pile of it in the UK anyway. But I think radwaste is a classic case study of how we pursue short term interests and discount future generations - the formal economic process of calculating discount rates generally considers that the best gift you can offer to future generations is a wealthy present. Hence economic and policy analysis has favoured N power in the present and not considered costs to the future of these technologies (including opportunity costs mentioned above).

So in summary – yes we need to invest in effective waste management to deal with the pile we’ve got but let’s not compound the problem further. There's a climate monster behind the door! This is the argument that whatever the downsides we must at all costs avoid a climate tipping point.

The UEA's Professor Tim Lenton says be careful with painting a picture of a threat of one great tipping point - it will propel us towards over hasty techno fixes that may generate new problems, and is in any case a bit of a distraction in terms of how to represent climate change. He makes this point in relation to geo-engineering but the same goes for N. He's lead author on nuanced paper on 'Tipping Elements'.

Everyone's doing it!

Well, the industry is set to expand but this raises the geopolitics/terrorism question. I don't think this is the best moment to pick to promote an industry that requires high levels of centralised control and regulation, high levels of security and a great deal of care around the tracking of fuel, waste and protection of plant. It intensifies the heat in already fraught political contexts. How will we decide on who has the tech, on what 'safe' and 'civilian' amounts to and what the wider consequences of sustaining big postgraduate N professions across the world?

Politicians have to agree to drive energy demand down dramatically

I'd agree with anyone that this much endangered low hanging fruit won't deliver the kinds of emissions cuts that might mitigate the threat of dangerous climate change. Politicians have to agree to drive energy demand down dramatically. Politically impossible to make our housing stock decent, our towns and cities pleasant and healthy, and our experience of travel more rewarding? For this and a host of other reasons we need to redefine quality of life.

To say to other nations that 'we can have nuclear power but you aren't mature enough' is not going to help gather an international community to address global challenges.

The sibling issue is that the west chasing after nuclear again makes it appear that this is the 'developed' choice. That's despite the Finns working on a new plant whose installation will overshoot by several years and lots of cash and has Finnish contractors and government and the French and German builders bickering over whose fault it is.

In short: there are fast, cheap ways of cutting energy consumption in the near term that we've still not done and those will deliver emissions cuts years before the nuclear engineers reach for the 'on' button.

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