The more I read George Monbiot these days, the more I think he’s descending, morphing into a reactionary waxwork automaton of his former radical, analytical, reasonable self. His recent web log posting on the Guardian Eco site hasn’t attracted many comments, compared to some articles of yore, but people seem to think, judging by Twitter chatter that getting equal numbers of critics from anti- and pro-nuclear commentators means that he is beating a middle-of-the-road and reasonable track through the thorny-hedged path to lower carbon energy. Just setting people up for a fight doesn’t appear to me to be making genuine headway. Seems to be more about ratings. And anyway, there are a number of assumptions and assertions he makes I simply cannot agree with. And here is a brief and non-complete run down.
1. The nuclear power industry has tried and failed to win our confidence
To my mind there is no question that we cannot trust the nuclear power industry – not because they might be underhand or incompetent – no. I’m not accusing the nuclear power industry of evilminded skullduggery, gross callousness or passing scorn at their failings. It’s just that some things in life are incredibly complex, and difficult to achieve safely and efficiently. It might just be that nuclear power is too complex to master (or mistress) without continuing, significant risks, both to the economy and the environment. Since nuclear power has not earned the confidence we were asked to place in it, I think we should be very wary of letting the industry expand again, especially on public money borrowed from the future. George Monbiot recommends to us the concept of “fourth generation technologies” in nuclear power – but doesn’t realise that not even third generation technologies are working.
2. The real energy frontier is waste, not technology choice
George Monbiot talks the right talk about energy efficiency and energy demand reduction, and he understands that electricity is our flexible friend as an energy vector – and that in the future, much more of the global economy will be driven by electricity, including transport and heating. He rightly states that this means that there needs to be continued growth in electricity generation. What he has not recognised is that it is pointless to try to expand current electricity production by building new centralised nuclear power plants if we have not got a proper plan for energy demand management. Until we have in place the right policies and laws to control energy use, to manage demand at all levels and in all sectors of the economy, there will be no progress. Building new power stations will not allow energy demand management to develop.
The real frontier on energy is getting control of energy waste, not choosing our favourite mix of electricity generation technology. If we grasp the energy efficiency and energy waste nettles, we may find we don’t need new coal or nuclear power stations, not for decades, perhaps, not forever, maybe.
The argument is warped – the debate should not be about whether we have new coal or nuclear power stations. Instead it should be about how we can increase the contribution from negawatts – energy waste control, raising energy efficiency and energy demand management.
3. The new nuclear fleet can only ever be replacement, not displacement
Nuclear power is very costly, and this is why only a handful of new reactors will be commissioned in the next 20 years – if at all – an issue that will be decided by the exact decline of a sinking economy that may well have to shed energy projects with heavy up-front loading, like nuclear. The current fleet of UK nuclear power stations need to be decommissioned by 2023 (apart from one), because neutrons cause material fatigue in metal and concrete and so reactors and fuel rods become progressively unsafer. A handful of new reactors would only be replacement for this lost capacity, not additional. So nuclear power cannot help with decarbonising the energy supply, because it cannot displace more emissions than it does now. Its contribution to the national energy supply is bound to reduce, in my view. But there’s another aspect to this – load balancing in the new energy future will make nuclear power redundant. First, because it is not easily switch-off-and-on-able, making it practically useless for load following. Secondly, because we should not place too much reliance on nuclear power for baseload because of the risk of unplanned outages and accidents.
In addition, as David Roberts at Grist has identified, we can decarbonise without nuclear power : “Crucially, building more baseload, nuclear or otherwise, will not move us in the right direction. It will delay us.”
4. Nuclear Power will eat Renewable Energy’s lunch
George Monbiot castigates Jonathon Porritt for his analysis that nuclear power cannot co-exist with renewables. I think the central issue here is that there is only a small amount of the national budget allocated for energy development, and it is clear that the energy companies are not keen on using their capital to invest. There is only a fixed pot of money that can go to new technologies. Money spent on nuclear power is money that will not be spent on renewable energy development. Why ? Because nuclear power investment locks money up in projects with very long lead times, with the potential for spiralling costs, and nothing to show for that investment, for a long time. As Jonathon Porritt says, “There’s one simple test for this hypothesis: where do you think the debate would be if the UK Treasury put the same sort of cap on funding for the nuclear industry (including paying off historical liabilities) as it has put on funding for renewables?”
Money that has been spent in supporting Renewable Energy so far has been shown to create assets that will apparently last for a long time with no long-term liabilities – compare that to the immediate depreciation of switching on a nuclear reactor – the future costs of decommissioning and waste disposal make the end of life a daunting spend.
5. The Committee on Climate Change have just inhaled all the Eurocompromises
George Monbiot may not realise it but the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) have simply adopted the compromises made at the European level on which technologies to support – with oodles of funding through the Strategic Technology Energy Industrial Initiatives (EII). These technologies include Carbon Capture and Storage and Nuclear Power, and the intention is that billions in Euros of public money will be raised over the next decade in a variety of forms to finance these “public works” – if the economy can support it.
The accounting for nuclear power from the CCC to me is highly fudge-prone, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that position. The costs for renewable power of all kinds are likely to reduce over the next ten years, whereas the costs of nuclear power are only likely to rise, or at best, stay the same, which I doubt because of new concerns about adequate insurance – thanks to Fukushima Daiichi !