Saturday, October 15, 2011

Why is Chris Huhne hitting the nuclear button?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Homer Simpson is the perfect person to be put in charge of safety of a nuclear power plant.


Because he's made so many mistakes, there are no new mistakes for him to make.

OK, so this reasoning is not exactly analogous with why Chris Huhne believes that, despite all the mistakes that have been made, it's a good idea to start building new nuclear reactors again.

But he does have a quote from Winston Churchill that he feels has resonance with how the British have tried to exploit nuclear energy over the past 50 years:

"Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all other possibilities."
Perhaps Churchill can be excused this barb, given that he was half-American.

Yesterday, Huhne, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, gave a speech to the Royal Society explaining why the future of nuclear power will be different to its past. He was explicit about the many mistakes that have been made in relation to nuclear power, but averred that nuclear power should be a key part of our future energy mix.

His speech makes five main points:

1. We're still paying for the electricity that nuclear power generated in the fifties, sixties and seventies.

In particular:
  • In the UK, there is currently enough high-level nuclear waste "to fill three Olympic swimming pools. We have enough intermediate-level waste to fill a supertanker, and a lot more low-level waste."
  • We have the world's largest plutonium stocks, which have to be guarded, converted and stored for many years.
  • The government spends £2 billion every year, cleaning up this mess.
  • The costs of decommissioning are still increasing. Now over £50 billion. 

2. Any new nuclear construction must be without public subsidy.

Huhne repeats the Coalition Agreement's vital principle that any new nuclear construction cannot have public subsidy. Whether "Feed-In Tariffs", the Carbon Floor Price or insurance liability count as public subsidy is not made clear.

3. Despite the costs and risks, nuclear should be a key part of our future energy mix.

The reason he gives for this is that "we face the greater risk of accelerating climate change if we do not embark on another generation of nuclear power. Time is running out. Nuclear can be a vital and affordable means of providing low carbon electricity".

Moreover, by 2023, all but one of our current nuclear reactors reach the end of their lives, leaving an 18% gap in the electricity supply. So that gap has to be plugged.

Huhne cites costings for the three large-scale low carbon technologies:

technology £ per megawatt hour
offshore wind 130
gas with carbon capture 95
nuclear 66

These figures include waste and decommissioning costs. He also notes that world gas prices have risen hugely over the last year, and are expected to be volatile. He argues that there are considerable uncertainties about promising renewable technologies such as wave and tidal, and costs remain high.

So he concludes that nuclear is the cheapest low carbon source of electricity.

4. A portfolio of energy generation technologies is needed.

We've been wrong before about the economics of nuclear power. We can be wrong again: "The industry still has to prove that it can build these enormous investments on time and to budget."

A "broad portfolio" of low carbon technologies is therefore needed, to handle the economic risk.

5. We must learn the lessons of the past.

And this is where Huhne invokes Churchill's quip above about how you can count on Americans to do the right thing... after they have exhausted all other possibilities. In relation to nuclear policy, Huhne says, "we have made pretty much every mistake human ingenuity could devise. And boy, are we British inventive."

  • Fostering a culture of secrecy in relation to strategic national decisions.
  • Conflating energy needs with military needs, and so leading to confused, expensive design decisions.
  • Letting the drive for innovation prevent the gains to be made from standardising designs: all 11 Magnox power stations were built to different specifications, for example.
  • Failing to take into account the environmental impact of nuclear power stations.
  • Failing to devise a costed plan for cleaning up afterwards, heaping costs on future generations.
  • Letting waste pile up.
  • Setting up a body that was supposed simultaneously to give the Government impartial advice and to promote nuclear energy, resulting in a lack of proper oversight.
  • Failing to ensure that regulatory systems were geared towards long-term protection.
  • Letting costs spiral without proper scrutiny.
  • Hiding subsidies in complex financial arrangements.

My reflections on this speech

I'm not at all convinced by the cost arguments presented here. Even if cost differentials turn out to be roughly as quoted over the next 30-50 years, fossil fuels and uranium are finite resources and so are not likely to be cutting-edge 22nd Century solutions. If we are serious about sustainability for future generations, I would have thought we need to focus our technological efforts on harnessing renewable resources.

This is a bit of an over-simplistic cop-out on my part though, because a lot hangs on accurate energy cost estimates. Such estimations are complex, well beyond my capabilities to unpick, and controversial. They need to take into account numerous hard-to-quantify risks and trends. But several authoritative sources have come up with estimates in which nuclear is not always the most cost-effective low carbon technology (e.g. Mott MacDonald, 2011). Of course in all discussions of such calculations there's also political game-playing, vested industry interests, scaremongering and so on, most of which serve to baffle non-experts like me into seeking simplistic grounds on which to decide.

Furthermore, although the commitment to "no public subsidy" sounds like it will finally put the viability claims of the nuclear industry to the test, governments have a long-standing habit of sneaking in subsidies by the back door. And this industry has a, as Huhne puts it, "terrible reputation for secrecy". Huhne says, of course, that he wants to encourage open competition, rather than monopolistic practices, and to ensure tough, transparent regulation, rather than a slipshod, secretive industry. And that's great; but what are the grounds for hoping that this government can get this right in the nuclear industry when the governments so clearly have got it wrong in the past in this industry and in others?

Nevertheless, on secrecy, I do wonder to what extent I'm still subconsciously influenced by that terrific nuclear thriller from the 1980s, Edge of Darkness:

But most importantly, in relation to climate change, the time-scale for nuclear looks wrong. If Britain started building 10 new nuclear reactors now, they would deliver a 4% cut in carbon emissions some time after 2025 [1]. Action is required now. As Greenpeace says, "It's too little too late at too high a price."

In addition, heat and transport energy needs are largely not addressed by nuclear power, and it would only supply a fraction of our electricity. So it is difficult to see why it is getting this level of attention as a way of addressing CO2 emissions. There has been huge investment into nuclear research and development in comparison with the research into renewables. At the same time, there are serious challenges associated with the idea that a huge investment in renewables and energy efficiency could be enough to cover both the lost nuclear power and the fossil fuels we need to stop using. So I don't have the answers, but I don't think that nuclear is the solution.

(These reflections are based on Huhne's speech. So I'm leaving to one side the familiar issues of aesthetics, safety, waste management, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and uranium mining)

Over the years I've moved from equanimity about nuclear power to ambivalence to scepticism to opposition. I'm still open to contrary arguments. But it seems to me that appearing to have "exhausted all other possibilities" does not imply that what we do next constitutes "the right thing". We are ingenious in our ability to create new ways of failing. And I'm not yet convinced that there are strong enough grounds to be confident we'll avoid repeating old ways of failing.



  1. Almost precisely my position. In addition we need to consider a global long-term energy policy to at least the end of the century, especially the effects of our policy on 3rd world countries energy policies. Also when is behaviour modification and world population to reduce demand going to be considered?

  2. I completely agree, Peter, about the importance of considering the impact of our policy on developing countries.

    I worry how to obtain buy-in from the US and China. This seems crucial, but the prospects appear maddeningly poor.