Shall We Go Nuclear ?
The way I see it, it’s not a simple straight choice between one energy production technology and any other. It’s quite a lot more complicated than that. There are issues of national energy policy, the method of financing and influential key players, practical details, economics, security and surety of supply, safety, security of installations, and also historical experience, when considering each option.
For instance, why would I prefer that new Nuclear Power not become part of the mix of lower-carbon energy provision ? I have what I believe are some very sound reasons to be pragmatically opposed to Nuclear Power. As a result of this, I cannot accept that Nuclear Power should be considered as “Renewable”. I’m sure none of what follows is original thought, but I would urge you to read it and reflect.
National Energy Policy : Centralised or Distributed ?
Traditionally, up until the 17th Century at least, European families were responsible for their own heating and lighting and horsepower. The development of mills, using a combination of wind and stream power machinery was a turning point in energy civilisation, closely followed by coal powered industry and transport.
However, it was only at the start of the 20th Century that power became a national industry, with Governments taking responsibility for providing power to the people, in the form of electricity and (town) gas. Since then, industrialised countries have expected their national Governments to provide the infrastructure and machinery to make energy provision to them in their homes and workplaces.
A drive for a new phase of nuclear power in the United Kingdom feeds on this expectation : that there should be national power, centralised energy provision, and that this is essential for the proper organisation of the country.
But let us consider the facts : many large-scale projects in the United Kingdom are fraught with problems such as missed deadlines, huge additional costs, failure to meet key objectives. “White Elephants” and “Money Pit” projects abound, such as the widely-reported Millenium Dome and the exceedingly expensive Scottish Parliament Building (although it’s very stylish). When we take a close look at the British Nuclear Power industry, it begins to look like it too is too big to be efficient.
I think we have to ask : what are the most cost-effective, risk-minimising strategy options we can choose ? Should we continue to ask the Government to provide Energy ? Is it best organised at the national level, with the construction and maintenance of large power stations (or even massive wind farms) ?
Also, it would be helpful if we could settle on a strategy that stimulates the economy, creates employment and builds community, at the same time as cutting Carbon Dioxide emissions and bringing power on-stream in a short space of time, with load flexibility.
I think the evidence speaks for itself as regards national power projects : largely wasteful, inefficient and expensive. Even with a good spread of regional power plants, power is lost, the further it is transmitted. Also, look at the polluters : industrial Carbon Dioxide emissions account for roughly a third of the total, and Transport & Aviation another third, which leaves Domestic Household energy creating a third of Carbon Dioxide emissions.
These two facts alone suggest that it would be efficient to follow a Distributed Power Generation Model (DPGM), also known as Home Power, to create power where it’s needed.
To be fully coherent this strategy would need to include housing development, as construction and renovation are major Carbon Dioxide emitting and material-wasting activities.
I’m sure many people would like to be sure that modern Nuclear Power Reactor designs, such as Pebble Bed, are safer, cleaner and cheaper than ever before, and that there is a clear safe plan for Nuclear Waste disposal, because then our dreams could become reality : we could stop worrying about the problem of Energy supply, and let the Government handle it.
Unfortunately, it seems that the best strategy to adopt means that we will all have to take responsibility for our own Energy production, just as we all need to pay attention to our personal and household Energy consumption. It seems that the logical outcome of the debate is that we each need to consider how we can produce domestic power. For example, the price of a rooftop wind turbine would cost around the same as a secondhand car.
Sure, we may well need Government money to help with initial equipment purchase : infrastructure always needs to be paid for, and Renewable Energy grants and funds have already been established. More importantly, I believe we have to stop delegating responsibility for energy production to the Government, because it’s wasteful, and get back to the mentality of our great-great-grandparents : to supply our own homes with heating, power and lighting. And do it in a sustainable, environment-friendly manner.
Methods of Financing : Investment for Power in the next Decade or in the next Two Years ?
The lead-time from planning to operation for a nuclear power station can be between 10 and 15 years, the lead-time to most Renewable Energy installations is much much shorter. So for the same initial investment, the payback comes online much sooner.
Since the United Kingdom needs to cut its Carbon Dioxide emissions, replacing dirty energy production by soaking up the demand with Renewable Energy capacity coming on-stream in a short space of time makes a lot of sense.
If we choose to go Nuclear, money that would have almost certainly been available for Renewables will be tied up for perhaps more than a decade, without producing a single kiloWatt of electricity. To me, that does not seem like a sensible plan. Investment in Nuclear Power has a worse return than investment in a low-interest bearing current account at the bank, and there is not even a guarantee of getting our money back at the end.
Renewable Energy is more immediately productive. Turning to wood biomass will give excellent results in less than 5 years. Wind Farms become productive within 18 months to 3 years. Small-scale Solar Collection Stations can be making cheap, green electricity within 6 months from plan to installation. All these projects turn around faster if they are local and small-scale. Regulations for biogas collection at landfill sites could be complemented by Local Government Council-backed biogas reactors, tomorrow’s town gas today, very quickly implemented. Tidal Power and Marine Power in general are being developed and could become popular, as the systems are quick and easy to install, cheap, quiet and reliable. Home Power Loans so that householders can set up variable-speed wind turbines. There is very little waste between power source and generation, and having a distributed network over the country will get round the problems of intermittent sourcing (variability of wind and wind speed for example). Money well-spent, with almost immediate results.
By building Renewable capacity in the short- to mid-term, and implementing strong Energy Conservation/Efficiency measures, I am convinced it will become clear that Nuclear Power projects are not necessary, and are in fact an expensive waste of time, money and effort.
With a decision to start a new generation of Nuclear Power Stations, it is clear that this will mean large construction projects in the hands of private companies, financed by the Government.
It is true that energy projects stimulate the economy, create employment and wealth, but the question still has to be asked : is it a good idea to put all our hopes and cash in large Nuclear construction projects, or could the money be more effective if it is distributed to smaller regional and local Renewables projects ?
If the full story is told, British Nuclear Energy looks like a money-wasteful and resource-wasteful enterprise, with the re-financing required to save it from collapse, and the enormous sum of money provided for the Nuclear Decommissiong Authority, because British Energy cannot actually afford to clean up the waste produced by its business. The company has been subsidised and propped up because it is considered that it must stay afloat as an essential national service. I question that. Surely industries and services that cannot make a profit should not be allowed to continue : the management seems rather poor. If it is not possible to make a profit from Nuclear Energy, then it is questionable whether we should build new Nuclear Power Stations.
Practical Details and Safety : Nuclear Waste and Security.
It took more than a year for the Government Committee charged with nuclear waste disposal to throw out the ludicrous and plain dangerous plans and award the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority lots and lots of cash to take on the task. This is 2005. Does that mean that all the nuclear waste from all those decades of nuclear power generation are still not dealt with ? Probably, although people don’t really like to talk about it.
I think it would be foolish to commence another nuclear power station building programme without making some progress with permanent disposal of the current nuclear waste we already have. We have tried to export nuclear waste, but some of it got sent back. We have been busy importing nuclear waste to re-process, but there have been problems with that too.
We are effectively stockpiling an expensive problem, and I don’t think we should add to it. This is a massive logistical failure, and smacks of continuing, poor management.
The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has received public money to do its job. This means the British people are still paying for Nuclear Power decades after they paid their utility bills, and no doubt, if there are problems for the NDA to offset costs against nuclear generation income, they will be back to the Treasury for more.
Then there is the whole issue of who exactly will do the nuclear waste disposal, using all that taxpayer’s money ? Private companies. Is there not a conflict between public safey and private profit-making activities ? Is there not a conflict between the public interest and corporate goals ?
In addition, as we all know, nuclear waste provides fissile material suitable for making nuclear bombs, so there is the whole connection with the military to consider, and the British tendency to follow the American lead in weapon matters.
Are influential voices promoting nuclear power as a public policy because after public money has been spent on paying the construction companies, public money will be given to private companies to make bombs, and so some people are going to get phenomenally rich from the British demand for more electricity ?
No, I’m not a conspiracy theorist, just describing what has been going on already.
Perhaps it is not in the best interest of the public to go nuclear.
In the end, I feel that there could be insurmountable political, financial and practial difficulties in attempting to commence a second generation of Nuclear Power in the United Kingdom, and so I would ask you to decide whether it is right to use our time and effort to walk this path.