Tuesday, May 16, 2006


Blair Goes Nuclear – Alex Doesn’t

In the latest instalment of our government by advance leak, it’s just come on the wireless that (to no-one’s surprise) Mr Blair is to come out strongly for the building of new nuclear power stations in a speech tonight. He’s wrong. The arguments are very well-rehearsed in the Liberal Democrats, but here’s a summary: we have to reject nuclear power generation as a means of achieving reductions in CO2 emissions because of the ludicrous expense to the taxpayer, risk of accidents, the long-term legacy of waste and the danger of terrorist exploitation of nuclear material. The positive alternative? Needs work, but if existing nuclear stations to be closed at the end of their safe operating lives and not replaced, something credible needs to go in their place.

With climate change the greatest threat facing the planet, whatever replaces nuclear power in UK generation has to be part of a low carbon strategy. Of course, we should be calling for much greater energy efficiency, but we need to set out in more detail how we’d achieve that. People still want to know where the actual energy will come from. Well, the answer is renewables – encouraging them on a large scale and on a small and local scale. The UK is particularly well-suited to a mix of renewable sources, including biomass, wind, wave, tidal and solar.

There is, however, a problem. Although in theory renewables could supply Britain’s energy needs, a lot of people don’t believe they’re reliable, and to a certain extent they’re right. The main problem is one of storage, in that fossil and nuclear fuels are stored-up energy to release in one way or another, but renewable energy is gathered as it comes – so what happens on a cloudy, windless day? I’ve speculated about this before, and it strikes me that to take on the arguments of our bull-headedly pro-nuclear Prime Minister seriously – without sounding like we might let the lights go out – we need to talk about serious investment not just in research and development, but a large building programme to exploit technology that’s already available to make our energy supply both green and continuous.

The main sort of storage ‘buffer’ around now can be seen in operation in Scotland and Wales and relies on potential energy and water. An alternative could be oil-rig-style offshore platforms that use windmills / tidal power to electrolyse water, converting that natural power into hydrogen, which can then be stored and burnt more cleanly than fossil fuels. Either way, just wishy-washily saying nice things about nice power no longer cuts it, and if we’re to be the serious green party that gets things done, we need to make tough choices.

I suspect advocating such a building programme won’t be popular – but neither will new nuclear power stations, and this has the advantage not merely of being low-carbon, but low-waste, low-accident, low-terrorist-risk and there must be at least a chance that, unlike nuclear, it might not be so absurdly expensive that the market can only be involved in it through massive, monolithic state subsidy picking up all the costs.

Update: Mr James Graham has added a fifth reason against nuclear power which, naturally, I should have put in in the first place and Richard also came up with straight away. As well as being enormously expensive, accidents having appalling long-term effects (remember those programmes documenting the continuing problems on the twentieth anniversary of Chernobyl just three weeks ago?), creating hugely dangerous waste that can only be ‘safely’ dealt with by being contained for about as long as the recorded history of human civilisation and being the terrorists’ best friend… When Mr Blair’s speech talks about nuclear power as an alternative to reliance on foreign supply for our energy needs, what is he on? Uranium isn’t home-grown, either, and there’s not much of it about. James also writes a thoughtful and sympathetic article about Mr Blair’s state of mind.

Whilst I agree with you on Nuclear, it's not on cost grounds. The changes we need to make in order to reduce consumption to levels sustainable on renewable energy resources would cost at least as much to achieve.

But I personally I don't bellieve the cost matters - the whole way the money systems work that tell us we can't afford something that is perfectly feasible to achieve needs to change.

When a Ferrari costs more than a Focus, it is not because there is something wrong with the "money system".

If cost were not the issue then there would be no problem. We could meet all our energy needs from really expensive renewables like PV. Pumped storage is capital-expensive but proven technology.

I have blogged on this before, but I will add that any opposition to nuclear should be considered rather than knee-jerk.
To be fair, I didn’t only argue on grounds of cost; but the enormous cost of nuclear is something against it, surely, not least in terms of persuading people. I do think “the cost matters” – if you’re going to make any sort of political appeal that will have people listening to you.

My reaction to the breaking news about Mr Blair wasn’t just a knee-jerk one, either. I gave four good solid reasons against nuclear power, none of which are based on wide-eyed emotional irrationalism, but on having carefully considered the arguments over more than a few years. That’s why I thought it important to deal with the case against quickly, and move on to what we could do instead; the party has for too long been against nuclear power when everyone else was, but without a convincing answer for ‘so what would you do instead?’ when the going got tough. I'd like to hear more about PV.

I wanted to set the terms of the Lib Dem blogosphere by directing us answers instead of outrage. If we’re to win the argument over Mr Blair, “Because it’s wrong!” won’t do. We have a better answer.
There is a fifth major reason: the fact that nuclear power would make us just as dependent on other countries for our electricity supply as depending on oil and gas. That's a real problem because there isn't all that much uranium out there, and while I'm sure that demand would lead to an increase in supply, there could be all sorts of unpredictable short term price hikes. The more countries adopting nuclear, the more unpredictability.

But there's another, hard headed business reason for not backing nuclear. Every penny invested in it is a penny that we can't invest in renewables. Yet even the most pro-nuclear (sane) people I've come across agree on two things: 1. fission is just a stopgap before something better comes along, possibly fusion (which is a whole other topic...); 2. we aren't even close to realising the potential of renewable power generation.

Major investment in renewables would lead to better renewables that we can then export around the world. The same investment in nuclear means getting the French to build something that will only be viable for the next 30 years. Which one would you choose?
Joe - the comparison is not between a Ferrari and a Focus. We are living in an utter dreamworld if we think that replacing our current power hungry structures and way of life and developing every last drop of renewable we can is going to cost less.

Even at the outside people are talking about £170bn clean up bill for nuclear - which is what, 15% of GDP? Seems like a justifiable investment to me if the alternative is the dark ages.

On the other hand the cost of replacing - yes, largely, replacing - our property (including housing) stock with stuff in which we can live comfortably on perhaps 20% of the current energy consumption is going to cost vastly more over time than that.

Hence my argument that cost is not the real barrier - it's whether you want to buy a Ferrari or an M1 McLaren.
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