Dr.Strangelove has entered the building

Back in 1974, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution concluded: “There should be no commitment to a large programme of nuclear power until it has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that a method exists to ensure the safe containment of long-lived, highly radioactive waste for the indefinite future.” It was the turning point for nuclear power in Britain. Vast expansion plans were abandoned, and only one reactor has been approved and built since.The Independent

The dreams about energy independence lead to expensive policies with no real energy security benefits. The nightmares about “energy wars” reinforce prejudices in China and India about the need for aggressive foreign energy policies – a process that looks like a vicious circle. Energy security risks have probably gone up but have not changed in nature. More money is needed to buy collective insurance. But energy independence is nonsense… The FT

The climate change debate in the UK took another turn last week with the government’s statement that the option of building new nuclear power stations would be taken up. Given a ‘self-evident energy gap’ the decision was made on energy security and environmental grounds. As the quotes above show both parts of this new policy are founded on contentious arguments. Moreover, given the construction lags, nuclear electricity generation will not contribute to reducing emissions or to energy supply in next decade (and thereafter only have a marginal impact on emission reductions).

The twists in the tale are that first the programme is to generate non-subsidised nuclear power — something that has never been achieved before anywhere — and second the government is (apparently) hedging its bets allowing the market to decide wider energy policy outcomes. If the latter is really the case then there are low-carbon alternatives to the nuclear option which may prove to be more cost-effective.

The nuclear industry in the UK has a poor track record: cost overruns, late delivery, and a small contribution to electricity generation at a high cost, without taking into account the large uncertainties and costs in waste management and decommissioning — the Sellafield clean up cost alone is expected be at least £30-40bn; the prospective investors will be encouraged by the government’s commitment to subsidise waste storage costs, and are no doubt expecting additional bailouts later on. The risks of nuclear power may be better understood, but like Concorde only one catastrophic accident turns the safety record upside down: would there be any discussion of reviving the industry had Chernobyl been in the Rhone or Suffolk? Also the industry has had a corrosive effect on civil liberties, an area in which the UK has yet to find a balance between the defence of public interest and acts in the public interest.

The immediate needs are to start making cuts in emissions and to ensure liberalisation not autarky in energy markets.

The first part recognises that nearly half of the potential reduction in CO2 emissions can be derived from energy efficiency using existing (plus cleaner carbon) technologies — more fuel-efficient vehicles (including biofuels), building insulation, public transport and tighter supporting regulations — rather than changing energy production. Some of these elements may justify public subsidies, others such as renewable energy sources will be pushed by the market as tightening supplies of oil and natural gas push up energy prices. Carbon taxation will increasingly be part of the equation. Carbon capture and storage look a promising medium-term option. Politically, promoting energy diversification and efficiency is an untidy business, requiring much effort from government and industry, businesses and households. But it reduces the need to make irrevocable decisions on nuclear power. And when those investment decisions are to made then new government guidelines “for use in all policy and project appraisals across government with significant effects on carbon emissions” which require carbon shadow pricing could well make nuclear power the least cost-effective option in comparison with renewable energy sources. All these efficiency gains can be shared between countries, in particular those which have recently become net oil importers, such as the US and China.

The second part recognises that with energy efficiency and diversification gains, energy security risks can be best reduced through collective insurance policies — and in particular through pluralistic and competitive energy markets, for example in the EU. There are inherent uncertainties in energy supply (known unknowns) and demand as a result of real energy price shifts and future technological change and societies responses to these (unknown knowns). There are no crystal balls and forecasting ‘gaps’ in these circumstances is a fruitless exercise: what is needed better quality intelligence on energy and carbon markets, and informed debate and leadership, in order that we might confront the world as it is rather than as politicians would imagine it. The balance between present and future generations will be determined in political and economic markets by the decisions of voters.

UPDATE 29Jan 2008

President Bush invoked nuclear energy in his State of the Union address. As Fred Pearce says: “Nuclear power is making a comeback round the world – rebranded as the new clean, green, low-carbon energy source for the 21st century.” In the UK given the lack of a discussion about how waste will be dealt, it is “nigh on criminal to starting pushing nukes. If there are secret plans, then it is dishonest not to reveal them and to try and win over a sceptical public.”

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