Should nuclear have a place in green government?

Written by Lord Hutton and Alan Whitehead MP on 4 June 2013 in Opinion
Lord Hutton is a firm advocate of our established nuclear industry, but Alan Whitehead MP can see no place for it in the forest of energy sources 

This article is from the June 2013 issue of Total Politics

The Nuclear Industry Strategy published in March is a strong indication of the government’s firm commitment to nuclear energy now and in the future. Professor Sir John Beddington, then the government chief scientific adviser, stated in March that, “A non-nuclear scenario isn’t one the government is thinking seriously about.” If the UK is to meet its climate change and energy security obligations, nuclear energy is, and will continue to be, vital to the UK’s energy mix.

Energy security is absolutely critical to the success of any government, to keep the lights on and businesses running, and a green government, like any other, has a responsibility to its citizens to ensure the security and reliability of its energy generation.

Nuclear energy currently accounts for 20 per cent of the UK’s electricity generation. It provides a clean, homegrown, reliable supply, ticking all the boxes of our current and long-term energy needs.

We are at a crucial stage in our challenge to decarbonise our electricity generation and we mustn’t squander this opportunity. The government has shown its commitment to replacing our ageing energy infrastructure, and the Electricity Market Reform (EMR) proposals are intended to provide the economic and commercial underpinning to investments in a range of low-carbon technologies, including nuclear. These proposals represent the most far-reaching changes to our electricity sector for the past two decades.

EMR is vital to attracting low-carbon technologies, as there’s little doubt that if left alone, the market would veer towards a short-term approach – building more gas generation – at the expense of our long-term environmental and energy security responsibilities. We need a £110bn investment in our energy infrastructure, and a failure to invest now will lead to an increased dependence on imported fossil fuels, which are subject to volatile price spikes and security of supply issues.

Nuclear is the only baseload energy source that is inherently low carbon. All too often the green energy debate is framed as ‘nuclear v renewables’, when nuclear works in collaboration with renewable technologies, not in competition. And both are needed.

A recently published International Energy Agency (IEA) report, Tracking Clean Energy Progress 2013, recognised clearly the “substantial role’” that nuclear energy has to play in the decarbonisation of our electricity generation. Furthermore, it recommends countries follow the UK example of EMR to de-risk investment in low-carbon nuclear energy, and allow investors to recoup high upfront capital costs.

As we become increasingly dependent on imported energy supplies, especially on gas, and as our energy infrastructure ages, with nuclear and coal stations facing closure over the next 20 years, the UK faces real energy security risks. On current lifetimes by 2023 all our nuclear stations, with the exception of Sizewell B in Suffolk, will have ceased operating.

Happily, life extensions can go some way to alleviating the immediate problem, and at the end of 2012 it was announced that Hinkley Point B and Hunterston B nuclear stations would now be expected to remain operational until at least 2023, an additional seven years. This, however, is only a temporary solution.

The impact of existing nuclear stations on the UK’s emissions is significant. EDF Energy expects that the life extensions referred to increase the amount of CO2 avoided by a significant 340m tonnes, equivalent to removing all cars from UK roads for nearly five years.

It’s this construction of low-carbon generation that will bring vast potential to the UK economy in the form of green jobs. As the first station in the new-build programme, Hinkley Point C alone will create around 5,600 jobs on site at peak and 400 new apprenticeships, as well as avoiding the emission of 10m tonnes of CO2. A report published last year by the Institute for Public Policy Research estimated that nuclear new-build could boost GDP by up to 0.34 per cent per year – equivalent to £5.1bn in 2011 – for 15 years.

The reasons for the continuing support for nuclear energy by political parties of all colours is simple: our dependence on fossil fuels poses real risks to the country’s energy security, the environment and energy prices. The status quo is not an option. Nuclear energy must have a place at the heart of the UK’s energy mix.

Lord Hutton of Furness (Labour) is the chairman of the Nuclear Industry Association


No, says Alan Whitehead MP

The best case for nuclear having no place in a future UK energy policy is not made by considering whether it is safe as an energy source, because, by and large, it is. However, as we have seen at Fukushima, the consequences of disaster, if it occurs, can be more extensive with nuclear than with other forms of energy production. And we aren’t going to suffer from mountains of non-disposable, dangerous nuclear waste: modern nuclear plants don’t make remotely as much waste as older models did. We would, at most, be adding modest amounts to the already huge pile we have to dispose of in the UK; that’s currently likely to cost more than £70bn to deal with, even if we can resolve the question of where in the country the huge hole that will have to accommodate it, long term, is to be located.

No, the best argument is made by considering what we’re doing currently with our programme to create 16gw of new nuclear power – about 10 reactors, on five or six sites – by 2025. This plan, which envisages that a substantial element of future UK baseload power will come from nuclear, is currently in the terminal stages of disarray. Instead of 10 reactors, by 2025 we will probably have two, and even these, planned by EDF to be sited at Hinkley Point in Somerset, are in doubt if arrangements to fund EDF very generously towards the cost of producing power over a 40-year period are not concluded soon. The current proposition seems to be that the Hinkley plant will now cost double its original estimate, some £14bn, and could require underwriting at a higher cost than most renewables, and over almost three times the period envisaged.

The truth about Britain’s current nuclear programme is that the dream of numerous new plants coming on-stream, funded by investors and assisted by favourable planning and development arrangements, is as good as dead. Instead, we can see clearly that new UK plants, as we know already from examples around the world, will be built, if at all, at great and mounting cost. And it would require substantial delays and a hefty subsidy over a very long period to keep them in business thereafter.

In the meantime, the nature of energy supply continues to change rapidly. The necessary decarbonisation of our energy systems over the next 20 years is already under way, and this will inevitably mean large contributions from renewables, substantial amounts of decentralised and local energy, smart systems to balance supply and demand, and significant progress in demand-side reduction through energy efficiency. All this will be backed up by flexible gas plants, interconnectors and improved storage that are able to deal with the changing nature of power supply. The last thing such power systems will need will be huge centralised power plants at the end of the grid, not able to switch on and off, and having to be paid back over many years for the huge upfront cost of construction. Indeed, by the time any new nuclear plants actually get onto the grid, they will already have navigated many of the changes described. New nuclear would be entering the grid as ‘dinosaur power’, when a low-carbon, green-energy world will have entirely different needs and priorities. 

Even if we can be entirely convinced that it will be secure, that we can dispose of its detritus safely, and that the state won’t have to lavish funds on it that could be used to develop and support more relevant power sources, we just don’t need it in the future energy mix. Worse, if we do have it in the mix it will go a long way towards impeding the development of systems that we’ll need to rely on for the future. 

It’s unfortunate that we remain largely under the spell of ‘nuclear riding to the rescue’ in the UK. It won’t. Other countries, most notably Germany, are planning ahead for their future energy needs on precisely the lines I’ve set out. We should be doing that too, but it needs the ‘we need nuclear’ spell first to be broken.

Alan Whitehead is Labour MP for Southampton Test

Tags: Alan Whitehead, Debate, Green government, Issue 59, John hutton, Nuclear energy

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