Nuclear Power: Nuclear Energy Back on the Agenda for Britain?
Nuclear power is back on the agenda with a bang in Britain. The speed with which it has moved centre stage in the political debate has taken everyone by surprise – including the scientists, civil servants and politicians that support it. Most people had naively assumed that the issue had been effectively killed off for at least a decade by the government’s energy policy White Paper in February 2003.
After years of investigations and discussions, it concluded by dismissing the industry’s call for a £10 billion programme to build 10 new nuclear power stations as an “unattractive option”. Nuclear power could not be ruled out for the future, it said, but there was no current economic case for it.
Yet now, just two years down the road, here we are rehearsing the same arguments again. Some suspect that this is the result of a poorly organised conspiracy by a powerful nuclear lobby, deeply embedded in the government establishment.
“The nuclear industry has grasped at climate change like a drowning man clutching a passing log,” said Tom Burke, a visiting professor at Imperial College, London, who was an environmental advisor to four ministers.
Public interest was stirred last year by a few leading “green” gurus coming out in favour of nuclear power. The most famous was the originator of the Gaia theory of the Earth as a self-regulating organism, Professor James Lovelock. He is linked with a small group known as Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy based near Paris. His argument is that because nuclear power emits much less carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas – than fossil fuels, it is the best technology available to combat the threat of climate change.
Pro-nuclear environmentalists, however, make up only a tiny fraction of the green movement, and they are not new. They can trace their ancestry back to those in the 1950s and 1960s who were so appalled at the destruction wrought by the atomic bombs dropped on Japan by the US in 1945, that they devoted their lives to “atoms for peace”.
There has also been a flurry of leaks from Westminster, all suggesting mounting pressure within government to take decisions on nuclear power. The latest, last weekend, was a memo to the new industry secretary Alan Johnson from his senior energy official Joan MacNaughton.
“It is generally easier to push ahead on controversial issues early in a new parliament”, she advised the minister. She also revealed that the environment secretary Margaret Beckett had been preventing the government’s review of climate change policy from considering nuclear power.
Ministers in London are sharply divided on the wisdom of building more nuclear stations, which may account for some of the leaks. But with the Prime Minister leaning in favour, and Gordon Brown at the Treasury worried about the public spending implications, it is difficult to predict what will happen.
An opinion poll for the BBC during the election showed that only 17% of people in Scotland supported more nuclear stations, compared to 73% who backed more wind farms.
Public opinion aside, there are major barriers to new nuclear stations. A new programme would likely be based on an untested US-designed reactor known as the AP1000, which is claimed to be cheaper and safer. But before it could be licensed for use in Britain, it would have to be fully assessed by the government’s Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. Unfortunately, as the Sunday Herald has previously revealed, the inspectorate is chronically short of staff, and has been embroiled in a morale-sapping work-to-rule for more than 18 months.
The former chief inspector of the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, Laurence Williams, told a meeting of the government’s Nuclear Safety Advisory Committee last November that evaluating an established international design would take 25 experienced inspectors about two years. It would take at least another year to recruit and train them, plus public inquiries which “would be a significant further drain on resources”.
It takes about 10 years to build a nuclear station from scratch, so according to Peter Roche, the earliest any new reactor could be up and running is 2018. This is seven years after Hunterston B is scheduled to close.
It is often forgotten that nuclear power, as a generator of electricity, can only avoid the pollution caused by burning coal, oil or gas in power stations. It can do nothing to prevent the vast amounts of carbon dioxide emitted by vehicles and farms.
“Energy efficiency can start reducing carbon dioxide emissions today,’’ argued Roche. ‘‘Just one or two efficiency measures, such as making sure all new central heating boilers and white goods are state-of-the-art, would be enough to displace the savings new reactors could make.”
Even representatives of the nuclear industry, when asked to comment on the prospect of new stations, seem unenthusiastic. A spokeswoman for the UK Atomic Energy Authority, which operates Dounreay, said: “Our mission today is very much about decommissioning our sites in a safe and publicly acceptable manner.”
Do we need nuclear power?
At a UK level the last major independent analysis of the question was conducted by the Cabinet Office’s Performance and Innovation Unit, in preparation for the 2003 energy White Paper. It suggested that a combination of increased energy efficiency, the widespread use of combined heat and power stations and a boost in renewable energy sources such as wind and wave power could sustain an annual growth rate of 2%, while cutting carbon emissions.
In Scotland an investigation for the Scottish Executive in 2001 by energy consultants Garrad Hassan concluded that all forms of renewable energy in Scotland could potentially generate a massive 214 terawatt/hours of electricity a year.
That is more than four times as much as the 50 terawatt/hours generated north of the Border in 2002, almost a third of which was exported to England. Only about a sixth of the total is currently provided by the Hunterston B nuclear station.
“A combination of demand reduction and energy efficiency, along with increased renewable energy capacity in non-environmentally sensitive areas would make new nuclear power plants unnecessary to meet climate change targets, even with the planned closure of Hunterston B,” said Clifton Bain from the Royal Society for Protection of Birds in Scotland.
Keith Parker, chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association, was encouraged by Tony Blair’s remark last week that the debate about climate change should include “serious consideration” of nuclear power. “Nuclear power can continue to make a significant contribution to securing future energy and environmental commitments,” he told the Sunday Herald.
what is wrong with nuclear power?
A common assumption about nuclear power is that it can be relied upon to keep churning out lots of power. The reality, as nuclear operators will sometimes admit, is rather different.
British Energy’s Montague says that it’s “no secret” that there are “reliability problems” with the advanced gas-cooled reactors such as those at Hunterston B and Torness. One problem is that some of the thousands of graphite bricks that surround the reactor cores are cracking, threatening the safe running of the plants.
The performance of British Energy’s reactors is worse than those in other parts of the world. According to Sig Berg, the managing director of the World Association of Nuclear Operators, the unplanned loss of nuclear generation in the UK was 12% in 2002, compared to under 2% in the US.
The cost of nuclear power is also daunting. Cleaning up the radioactive mess left at Dounreay, which only ever produced very small amounts of electricity, is likely to cost at least £4bn over the next four decades. The estimated total cost of cleaning up all Britain’s nuclear plants – which is being met by taxpayers – is £50bn.
The vulnerability of nuclear companies to price fluctuations was starkly demonstrated by the near-collapse of British Energy in 2002. It had to be bailed out by the government with a £650m loan from public funds.
One consequence of that was the company’s decision to close its Peel Park headquarters in East Kilbride. New documents released to the Sunday Herald last week under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act reveal that this triggered a severe staffing crisis that could have put safety at risk.
Alongside fears about safety, there is the long-running saga of what to do with Britain’s 470,000 cubic metres of nuclear waste. Not to mention the 18 million cubic metres of soil and concrete thought to be have been contaminated with low-level radioactivity from leaks and spills at nuclear sites.
The government’s latest attempt to solve this problem – asking a group of independent experts to come up with recommendations – is in trouble. One scientist, Keith Baverstock, has been kicked off the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM), while another has decided to withdraw. Both are thoroughly disillusioned by the process.
Baverstock, formerly a senior radiation adviser with the World Health Organisation in Europe, accused CoRWM of wasting time on “amateurish” attempts to draw up a list of options. “The public health aspects of the problem are being ignored and trivialised by people who do not sufficiently understand the issue,” he said.
Strangely, what critics regard as the most dangerous aspect of nuclear power is sometimes the least talked about. Joined at the hip to the military industry, nuclear power depends on technologies which can also be used to make fuel for atomic bombs. This essential ambiguity is at the root of some of the most destabilising confrontations in the world today.
Britain is enriching uranium at Capenhurst near Cheshire at the same time as urging Iran not to enrich uranium at Natanz. The British government extracts tonnes of plutonium at Sellafield in Cumbria as it tries to persuade North Korea not to do likewise at Yongbyon.
The global tensions that inevitably result from these attempts to control the spread of nuclear weapons disturb many. It doesn’t take a genius to understand how terribly high the stakes are.
Full Scottish Sunday Herald Article