British government embraces a nuclear-powered future
Ben Tuxworth, communications director at Forum for the Future, is the new author of Brit’s Eye View, a monthly Gristmill column on sustainability in the U.K. and Europe. The column was previously written by Tuxworth’s colleague Peter Madden.
After much delay, the British government started the new year with an announcement on nuclear power generation. It seems they have finally succumbed to the prevailing industry logic, which says that we need big bits of power-generating kit to plug into the grid to provide base loading, and nuclear is the perfect low-carbon solution. And because investment in any other possible solution — particularly energy-efficiency measures and renewable technologies — has been so poor over the last 20 years, it is now the only answer to a coming crisis in energy provision.
The crisis is with us because the existing fleet of stations in the U.K. is either already obsolete or coming up for decommissioning in the next few years. Paradoxically, this eases the question of where to build: most of the new plants will be built on existing sites. These sites are on the coast, raising interesting questions about the effect of sea-level change, but for now they’re the obvious choice as, despite industry claims about improved safety, it will be very difficult to find new localities in which nuclear power plants are welcome.
Presenting nuclear as the best option for the U.K. seems to require pretty healthy doses of both wishful thinking and faith in hope over experience. Bringing this new generation of power stations online in time to meet the gap in supply means they must be up and running in 10 years, very close to the theoretical minimum from decision to delivery. The only other station being built in Europe at present, in Finland, is two years into construction and already two years late, and $1 billion over budget. To speed things up, we have to wish away objectors and hobble the planning system, for which special legislation is already proposed.
But the big debate at present is what the true cost of these installations will be. Who will pay for building, running, and more importantly decommissioning them, and management of the waste over the coming millennia? The British government is anxious to avoid any suggestion that the taxpayer will pick up the tab, despite the fact that no nuclear reactor in history has been built without state subsidy. Order-of-magnitude underestimations of costs — some of which are simply unknown — litter the history of the industry, and government bailouts have been the consistent consequence.
The U.K. taxpayer is still paying for $8.6 billion losses and the near bankruptcy of nuclear provider British Energy four years ago. The industry itself is understandably nervous about the mechanism proposed to deal with these costs in the future. The proposal is that the companies building the new stations (potentially including France’s state-owned EDF, EON, and a range of other non-U.K. power utilities) all contribute a proportion of profits into a decommissioning fund. But to sweeten the pill, the announcement from the government includes a commitment by the government to unilaterally underpin the price of carbon, ensuring that nuclear competes better with conventional sources, and also a coded promise to pick up the tab if the safety of the public is at stake. And of course, the taxpayer will pay for the deep storage facility for waste, currently estimated at $40 billion, if ever a site for it can be found.
The outflanking of both green and left arguments by an industry most people had written off even five years ago is an astonishing turnaround. Green groups have argued that nuclear is at best a red herring — providing only 8 percent of energy use in the U.K. — and at worst a high-risk distraction, hoovering up investment, political energy, resources, and technical capacity at the expense of faster, cheaper, lower-carbon solutions. But they have somehow been marginalized as treehuggers and flat-earthers, unwilling to face the realities and make “tough decisions,” the phrase now used to describe any unpopular move by government, whilst nuclear power has become the manly, grown-up choice for the bold architects of the future, and even, astonishingly, the best solution for the environment.
Public opinion has swung in behind the decision, with polls suggesting new stations are acceptable to around half the population, up from 20 percent just five years ago. Much of this shift is due to concern about climate change. For groups like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, the announcement represents a colossal failure, all the more so as they will now be blamed for delaying the construction of the new stations and therefore somehow responsible when the lights go out.
The fallout from this decision will, of course, occur long after those making it have hung up their boots. The financial and environmental tab will be picked up by future generations. It’s hard to imagine that Britons of 2050 — or 3050 — will find the combination of expediency and optimism that led to the construction of such a legacy quite so convincing. It will also take some explaining to Iranians of the present why a solution the British government finds so eminently sensible for itself is something they must never have.
Where does this leave the green dream of energy security through a decentralized and diverse blend of conventional and renewable generation, plus carbon capture, offsetting, and efficiency measures? And where will we find the answer to the other 92 percent of the energy question that this nuclear plan won’t address? The E.U. has just announced a target for overall emissions reductions of 20 percent by 2020, efficiency gains of 20 percent, and a U.K. target for 15 percent of our electricity to come from renewables in the same timeframe.
Britain currently languishes in 24th position in the E.U., producing only 1.3 percent of its power from renewables (only Luxembourg and Malta are worse, whereas Sweden has already reached 40 percent). Energy minister Malcolm Wicks claims the U.K. will meet its target. But if the utility companies are really going to pay for developing new nuclear plants, the concern is that they will struggle to find the capital to invest in renewables. Unsurprisingly, they are already complaining that the E.U. targets are “unaffordable.” In all, the U.K. debate about how best to tackle climate change and provide energy security looks set to rumble on for the foreseeable future.