Perpetuating the nuclear mythPosted: January 5, 2011
Nuclear energy returned to the political agenda in the UK in 2005, when nearly a quarter of electricity came from nuclear plants, around a third from coal-burning power stations, and well over a third from power plants burning natural gas. The balance of UK-generated power, about 7%, was from all other energy forms including oil. The then-Prime Minister Tony Blair refused to rule out a new generation of nuclear power stations to replace the ageing stations that are nearing the end of their life. All but one of the 19 nuclear reactors operating in 2009, when they produced 18% of the UK’s electricity consumption of 371 billion kWh, are due for closure by 2023.
The Sustainable Development Commission, set up in 2000 by the Blair government of 1997-2001, and given a higher profile and more resources in 2006, considered the pros and cons of a new generation of nuclear power stations but issued a position paper, The Role of Nuclear Power in a Low Carbon Economy, that came down against the nuclear option.
“The conclusion from the analysis was that the UK could meet our CO2 reduction targets and energy needs without nuclear power, using a combination of demand reduction, renewables, and more efficient use of fossil fuels combined with carbon capture and storage technologies.” — from section 3.3 of the report.
The commission had grave doubts about the safety of decommissioning nuclear power stations and storing waste, and about the ethics of imposing responsibilities for nuclear waste management on future generations. Members reckoned that a nuclear power programme “could divert public funding away from more sustainable technologies that will be needed regardless, hampering other long-term efforts to move to a low carbon economy with diverse energy sources”. The paper also made the point that “[i]f the UK cannot meet its climate change commitments without nuclear power, then under the terms of the Framework Convention on Climate Change, we cannot deny others the same technology”. Instead, says the commission, it would be preferable to use decentralised, small-scale energy generating technologies.
The “majority view” of the 16-strong commission, then chaired by Jonathon Porritt and composed mainly of environmental and sustainability professionals, was that “there is no justification for bringing forward plans for a new nuclear power programme, at this time, and that any such proposal would be incompatible with the Government’s own Sustainable Development Strategy”. Careful not to box the government right into a corner, a majority of commission members also recommended that government should “continue to assess the potential contribution of new nuclear technologies for the future, as well as pursuing answers to our nuclear waste problems as actively as possible”. This diluted the message somewhat, but even so the government did its best to forget about the report and its main recommendations. The Coalition government formed in May 2010 swiftly decided to axe funding for the Sustainable Development Commission.
The previous Labour government’s own energy review, The Energy Challenge, published in July 2006, advocated a new generation of nuclear power stations for the UK. Individuals would lose the right to object to a new nuclear plant on principle, and would be able to comment only to the suitability or otherwise of the proposed site. The same loss of rights to object would also apply to proposals for wind farms. The new Infrastructure Planning Commission was to have been responsible for deciding on major planning projects like power stations, but in 2010 the incoming Coalition government opted to abolish it and to retain ministers’ power to decide on planning issues of national importance.
The official British government line on paying for nuclear power plants remains a determination that the private sector must pay to build, operate and decommission them, but this is not quite the reality. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is funding the clean-up and storage of the UK’s old reactors, and in 2011-12 has a budget of £2.9 billion, £2.0 billion of which comes from government. In the USA typical decommissioning costs per reactor, after a productive life of about 30 years, exceed £200 million. These sums highlight the huge problem with nuclear power generation, the necessity of managing the residue in perpetuity, no matter what it costs.
By 2010 governments were in a quandary that had more to do with fossil-fuel depletion than with climate change: they needed, somehow, to keep the lights on, even at the risk of future catastrophic pollution and radioactive violence. That would be on someone else’s watch. Thoughts turned to ways of increasing private investment in nuclear power, and to the use of a high carbon price to discourage investment in high-emission energy and encourage investment in renewables and nuclear power. The Treasury and Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) outlined government thinking in their December 2010 consultation document, Carbon price floor: support and certainty for low-carbon investment, which proposed setting ‘carbon price support rates’ for levies on all fossil fuels, sufficiently high to persuade the fuel and power industries and energy users to switch to renewables and nuclear. The document suggests that this could be done without substantial price rises, a notion that is not supported with reasoned evidence. The average annual household electricity bill would rise by between £3 and £23 a year in 2020 but in 2030 would be between £20 and £48 lower than in 2009, at constant prices, the document predicted, on the assumption that a plentiful supply of ‘clean’ electricity would push prices down. This forecast has echoes of the early, unfulfilled claims made for nuclear power, that it would be too cheap to meter.
The Treasury and HMRC were concerned only with fiscal levers, and their calculations omitted references both to the permanent maintenance and storage obligations resulting from nuclear power, and to the potentially lethal consequences of accidents and of the deliberate diversion of uranium to persons keen to use it to threaten, maim and kill.