Going nuclear?

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One developing story I didn’t get around to blogging about over the past couple of weeks is nuclear policy. There have been several stories in the papers recently on this. Most recently, the Nuclear Consultation Working Group issued a damning condemnation of the government’s second consultation on nuclear energy. This is bad news for them as they’ve already had one consultation thrown out in court.

The most bemusing line I’ve read about this was on the front page of the Guardian yesterday was this:

The government is expected to insist it has a mandate. In meetings in the autumn, more than 1,000 people were asked their view of nuclear power after seeing videos and taking part in discussion: 44% said power firms should have the option to build nuclear; 36% said no.

I accept that the first sentence is a journalist’s embellishment. Nonetheless, if the government is claiming a “mandate” it has another thing coming. Nuclear energy, along with Trident and a basket of other important issues, was one of the topics Labour would not mention during the general election, either on the stump or even in the small print of their manifesto. And if they are basing their consultation on the balance of responses received, this would be a government first. Normally, government departments are the first to point out that to do so would be to cede policy to the views of a vocal minority and that they are not statistically signifcant. It would seem to me that it would be unwise to set a precedent on this.

The second nuclear theme is rather more tricky. David King, the Royal Society and the European Commission have come out urging the government to consider reprocessing and using the UK’s stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium. This is a different argument to the standard go nuclear one: we already have tons of the stuff – enough to provide 60% of the UK’s electricity needs until 2060 – and there are serious safety and security implications in just stockpiling the stuff.

Personally speaking, my main objections to going nuclear are geo-political. I simply cannot see any merit in exchanging an oil economy for a uranium one. Most supporters of nuclear seem to think the UK exists in a bubble, that we alone are facing this decision and that there are no economic or security implications for increasing the global demand for uranium by a factor of ten or even one hundred. The prospect of us waging our first “uranium war” or propping up some corrupt African regime simply to ensure security of supply doesn’t exactly entice me (note – I accept the argument that we only have 30 years of supply based on current levels of consumption is bogus; demand creates its own supply. But the truth is we simply do not know how much uranium there is out there or how much it might cost to extract it – the counterargument that you should base future supply of uranium on an oil-based model is, if anything, even more bogus). And the cost appears comparable to investing in renewables to the point where they would become economical. With solar now threatening to, erm, go nuclear, I’m not convinced by the TINA argument that fission is the future. Introduce a UK feed-in tariff before lecturing me about what is or is not possible.

Most of these arguments however do not apply to reprocessing. This is about making the most of our past mistakes, not making new ones. It would be potentially cheaper, and I’m prepared to buy the argument that nuclear buys us time for renewables to develop (so long as investment in renewables goes hand in hand with it).

If this was what the government was pushing, rather than its bleak vision of making the UK economy entirely dependent on a non-renewable substance we don’t produce and have no guarantee of supply over, I’d be more sympathetic.

5 thoughts on “Going nuclear?

  1. Interesting to read a considered approach to the ‘problem’ of nuclear power on a Lib-Dem blog of all things!

    Recalling the vote at Conference that defeated realism in favour of ‘flowers and sandals’ 70s ‘nuclear bad- anything else good’, I have a more positive feeling about 2008 and perhaps the advent of Nick Clegg might possibly herald a shift in the Party’s line. Chris Huhne came out with the absurd comment that nuclear power had ‘clearly failed’. Failed to do what?

    My fear is that my grandchildren, already going through school, will have to pick up the pieces for our failure to address climate change with anything like bold enough action. The prospect of climate change is now so serious that we should be publicly derided for our head-in-the-sand policy of ‘no nuclear’. The one and only reason for me to be happy about the Lib-Dems not being in government is just this, that our policy will not be the prime determinant of government action that may sensibly maintain our base-load nuclear output of electrical power. The alternative is importing nuclear generated energy from France long term.

    The promised ‘breakthrough’ in solar-voltaic is repeatedly hyped but nothing appears. Just the same polycrystalline overpriced inefficient units that will never breakthrough any commercial barrier. (NanoSolar seemed a promising breakthrough- lots of hype at least, but there is still no sign of any real systems ‘on the ground’.) And the windmill lobby seems to have created more false hope of the new renewable dawn. This at the price of unknown ecological effects and what many view as disfigurement of our landscape – and also very inefficient and capital intensive.

    So, when the night is dark and the wind does not blow (or blows too hard), what then for our energy needs? More coal fired power stations seems to be the answer. Just what we always wanted!!

    We are also hung up on nuclear power station waste. What shall we do with it ? is the cry. And there is much hand wringing and craven hesitancy and fear and trembling. The answer is simple. In short don’t strive to “do” anything. Respect it, certainly, but just leave it alone. But fear landfill. This, and fossil fuel burning should preoccupy our political energies. And REDUCE and RECYCLE!

    Happy New Year!

  2. A few points that need addressing there:

    Firstly, yes, there has been a lot of hype about solar, but the large take up of it in Germany isn’t hype, it’s good policy. Germany and other countries are fuelling demand for PV cells which in turn is leading to the development of better PV cells. That is basic economics. We could be helping this; our government chooses not to.

    Your argument against wind power is bogus. Sure, the wind doesn’t blow all the time and wind is no panacea. But the solution is developing a decent storage medium, most likely hydrogen, and burn that over time.

    I’ve made some positive comments about nuclear above, but that doesn’t make me a fan for all the reasons I outlined above. I do accept that the Lib Dem line is too simplistic, but so is the nuclear lobby’s.

  3. Good points, strongly made.

    Another couple of issues re a possible global increase in nuclear capacity: we should perhaps be asking ourselves whether we would want to see a corresponding increase in the amount of HLW, which no-one yet knows how to safely and equitably dispose of. We should also ask whether a corresponding increase in the amount of damage done by uranium mining (particularly as mining costs rise and health & safety margins drop in response) is something we want to impose on the impoverished communities these activities typically affect.

    In either case we’re dealing with externalities, imposed on the one hand on future generations, on the other on distant contemporaries.

  4. The Government’s approach to nuclear policy is indeed reprehensible. But actually this is just part of a wider issue – the failure to have any meaningful energy strategy at all despite it being abundantly clear that we are speeding towards a crisis at top speed.

    Climate change, surging Chinese and Indian demand, peak oil (from increasingly insecure sources) and lack of technically good alternatives all combine to make energy just about the most important strategic issue facing government. Yet for many years Labour’s approach has been to adopt the ostrich strategy and hope it will go away. It won’t.

    I used to work on the fringe of the nuclear industry working for a company that aspired to supply uranium to nuclear utilities. The experience left me rather opposed to nuclear power – though not for the reasons usually cited by greens. Now however, I lean towards the view that for the moment at least and as a transitional plan until better alternatives become available there may no longer be a realistic alternative because so much time has been lost by successive governments (Conservative as well as Labour).

    Firstly, I would not worry too much about the availability of uranium. Reserve statistics are massively conservative and in any case utilities are not stupid and have very long procurement planning horizons especially when supply is seen as tight as now. Uranium per se costs only a small fraction of the cost of nuclear so there is plenty of scope to work poorer mines with higher production costs if push comes to shove without too big an impact on the cost of electricity generated. And if uranium really ran short we could use thorium instead as the Indians already plan to do although this would require different reactor designs. However, this scenario is very unlikely to arise if nuclear is indeed transitional to better alternatives.

    Secondly, I would not wish to see recycled plutonium adopted as a fuel. The recycling involved is a costly, technically difficult and generally pretty hairy process best not done at all. Of course the nuclear lobby loves it because it represents a tidal wave of government money that, once started, cannot be stopped. And it’s emphatically not “free fuel” as claimed by David King as reported in the Guardian. Operating costs would inevitably be high although the capital cost of “several billion pounds” quoted by the Guardian may well be in the right ballpark. In short, this is hardly “no-brainer”. To make matters worse a secure long term repository for high level waste is still required so there is no free pass there.

    That leaves the issue of what to do with the UK’s accumulated stockpile of waste. It’s high time that Government bit the bullet on this as it should have done years ago and developed a secure long term repository as a matter of some urgency. There is nothing particularly difficult about this technically – the problems are PR-related but none the less important for all that.

    But above all we need a credible and broadly-based National Energy Strategy which gives proper weighting to the various generation strategies on the one hand and on the other hand to energy efficiency plans which need to move beyond vacuous and spin-driven targets to things happening on the ground.

  5. Thanks for that Gordon. The whole plutonium, reprocessing argument is of particular interest to me and I would certainly like to see it explored in the public arena in more detail.

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