Will the nuclear boom harm global warming?

So the government is to give the green light to nuclear. No surprises there then.

Part of me would like to be an optimist, denounce the green lobby for being apocalyptic, line up with Jim Lovelock and David King and comfort myself that nuclear is a better alternative to coal and gas. I certainly am fairly dismissive about the “danger” argument (although moving a hundredfold more uranium and nuclear waste around the world, which appears to be where we’re headed, does strike me as a significant security threat).

The problem is, I’m simply not convinced by the economics of it all.

A thought has struck me this week: if these plants are really to be built without a penny of government subsidy, with the industry even paying for the clean up costs, it seems to be based on a model that the cost of gas and oil will remain high. John Hutton seems to confirm this:

Analysis of future gas and carbon prices showed nuclear was “affordable and provides one of the cheapest electricity options available to reduce our carbon emissions”.

If that’s the case then it suggests that things like oil shale are likely to remain extremely commercial indeed. Indeed, it suggests an economy in which coal becomes affordable as well (we’re already seeing this happen). In other words it appears to be based on a model where a killing will be made exploiting the most dirty sources of energy imaginable, many of which will counteract the carbon savings by going nuclear. And they won’t take until around 2020 to come on stream.

On the plus side, it also makes numerous renewable sources more viable. But the government is still resisting opening the door for micro-generation through a German-style import tariff, so progress on that will not be driven by thee and me as it is in other countries. And the government also seems reluctant to invest in R&D comparative to even the US which not only will make development take longer but denies us opportunities in terms of jobs and enterprise.

Overall, it is hard to shake the impression that we are pursuing this goal due to a chronic lack of imagination more than anything else. While I normally am the first to defend scientists, I do wish we heard a little less of them in this debate and a little more from the economists.


  1. I think the economic aspect is the important one here. I doubt whether nuclear is viable.
    The same goes for wind power though.

    Personally I think the progress in solar technology along with energy storage is going to make that so cheap it could make a significant dent in the energy business.

    The political positive for nuclear seems to be its a known quantity (we know how much energy it can produce and its consistent in its production unlike wind or solar) and it helps move us away from dependency on unstable countries and a cartel for our fuel supply (OPEC, Russia etc) since fissile material is mostly found in stable western countries.

  2. Tristan, I agree – particularly about solar.

    You are of course also correct about nuclear being a known quantity while there are so many question marks over renewables, but partly that is simply because certain aspects of the model are things that governments are used to dealing with, rather than certainties.

    For example, we don’t have guaranteed supply for all these new nuclear power plants popping up around the world. If I were to quote that figure about there only being 30 years of uranium left in the world at present levels of consumption, pro-nuclear people would rightly jump on me for misunderstanding exactly what that means. Governments are used to dealing with the concept that forecasts of the supply of natural resources are invariably conservative and supply is driven by demand – there are countless examples of where this is the case.

    By contrast, the renewables market is more analogous to the software industry which governments have never particularly needed to grasp. My understanding of solar is that the development of PV technology is at such a pace that efficiency is rising and costs are falling exponentially – its own version of Moore’s Law.

    In the 70s, environmentalists were confidently predicting that oil would run out and that solar panels would be the answer to everything; they were wrong on both counts. Circumstances have now changed considerably, but I can’t help but think that many policy makers are still basing their decisions on this.

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