Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The atomic age returns

January 11, 2008


After fierce protests and much delay, the government finally came clean yesterday and announced that it will encourage more nuclear power plants. A success, ministers and civil servants may feel. But only in the narrowest terms. Strategically, the decision represents a huge failure: a failure to get a grip on the imminent shortfall in domestic energy supply; a failure to ramp up renewables early enough; and a failure to think creatively about how Britain gets and uses its energy.

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What is so wrong with nuclear power? To answer succinctly: "its current economics make it an unattractive option for new, carbon-free generating capacity and there are also important issues of nuclear waste". That is not from a green pressure group or some malcontent scientist. It is from the government's own energy white paper, published in 2003. The problems have not been solved in the intervening five years; if anything the costs have increased. Official projections suggest around £70bn will need to be spent on winding down and cleaning up the plants already in the UK. As for running the stations, it was possible for a company to open one before yesterday - but none did because it would have been prohibitively expensive to do so unaided. Despite government protestations, without subsidy in some form, new reactors will not be built in Britain. Then there is the radioactive waste, a problem no country has yet solved (but which exists whether or not Britain builds new plants). It requires a huge financial fix and a moral choice: governments last mere years, but waste creates a problem that will hang around for centuries. All these drawbacks are well known and the nuclear industry has no clear answer to them. Instead, it points out that the volume of waste will be a tenth of that from the previous generation of stations and argues that the overall safety is better than the popular memory of Chernobyl allows.

So why back atomic energy? Put simply, for lack of better alternatives that will be available in time. Britain's old coal and nuclear stations are closing down, and the government has warned in rather thespian tones that the lights will go out unless replacements are built. It has not tried hard enough to find solutions. Even after yesterday's announcement, Britain is still on course for a domestic energy crunch. Plant closures mean nuclear will go from providing about 20% of electricity supply now to 3% by 2020. It is unlikely that the first new nuclear plant will open before 2021.

The choice is between the unappealing and the impractical. Compared to renewables, nuclear power has obvious disadvantages - but it is a proven technology that can be counted on to provide a large and regular energy supply. Onshore wind is cheap, but not always popular with local residents or reliable, and other forms of technology - such as wave and solar - are decades away from being either as big in scale or as dependable. None can fill the nuclear gap. And of all established big power sources, nuclear is the most carbon-friendly. Encouraging efficiency could bridge some of the shortfall but it still requires some power to be generated somehow.

Britain needs secure and low-carbon energy, which left the government little choice yesterday other than to opt for nuclear. It was right to do so. But new plants, if they ever actually arrive, are a long way off and the decision to build them should not be allowed to obstruct the development of an intelligent, less centralised energy policy of which nuclear can only be a part. A greener framework would rely on three big things: serious efficiency in energy consumption; much heavier investment in renewables; and a move from a command-and-control national grid to microgeneration and community power plants. These are big shifts, but other industrialised societies such as Germany and some states within the US are making them. Britain must follow suit.

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