The Independent View: No real choice on nuclear

Atoms are not the only fission products of nuclear power. This is a technology with a unique capacity to divide people and parties. The pro- and anti- lobbies have been fighting it out for forty years and are no nearer to agreeing about its role in our energy system than they were when they began.

When we joined the Coalition we had a settled policy that was an important part of our distinctiveness as the greenest of the major parties. The policy we took into the Coalition Agreement was clear and unambiguous. We had long opposed any new nuclear construction. In one of the most detailed passages of the Agreement we negotiated the right to maintain this position.

So why are we proposing to change this principled position now? The facts have not changed. Nuclear power remains a risky and expensive technology. Climate change matters as much to us now as it did when we first adopted the policy. The better, cheaper and faster ways to reduce our carbon emissions and provide affordable energy security are all still available, cheaper now than they were then.

Simple arithmetic demonstrates clearly that, even if we could afford to, we could not build enough nuclear power stations fast enough to make any difference to the climate. Because of Treasury constraints on spending, if EDF’s reactor at Hinkley goes ahead there will be no public money to support investment in renewables and energy efficiency post 2020, putting our Climate Change Act budgets at risk. Far from advancing our ability to tackle climate change it would reduce it.

We are being asked to take a gamble that an industry that has never delivered on its promises will somehow do so this time. And we are being asked to do so under the cover of the flimsiest of figleaves. Instead of a clear and unambiguous position of informed and principled opposition we are being asked to be in favour of nuclear power provided there is no public subsidy.

This is an invitation designed by the proposers to provide post hoc support for DECC’s current position, which is a distortion of our current nuclear policy that was not required under the Agreement. DECC has consistently argued that the Contract for Difference that will set the price of electricity for the next 40 years, and provide a subsidy to EDF of well over £100 million, is not a subsidy. They have yet to convince a single journalist that this is true. Nor should you be convinced.

There is a simple test of whether or not this is a subsidy. If it is a subsidy it has to be agreed to by the European Commission. If it is not a subsidy, there is no need to apply to the Commission for state aids clearance. You can just go ahead with your policy. So why is DECC having to apply for state aids clearance for its support for Hinkley?

Option B in the motion offers a false prospect, designed to mislead. The ‘no subsidy’ pledge is a figleaf under which the proposers are trying to conceal a fundamental change of policy. It asks you to put loyalty to a Minister above loyalty to the party’s long established, clear and unambiguous policy. This is a false choice over a fudge and should be rejected.

* Tom Burke is a Founding Director of E3G and previously directed Friends of the Earth and the Green Alliance, as well as working in government and business. He contributed a chapter on energy policy and climate change to The Green Book: New Directions for Liberals in Government, published in March.

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14 Comments

  • jenny barnes 9th Sep '13 - 9:36am

    ” The better, cheaper and faster ways to reduce our carbon emissions and provide affordable energy security are all still available, cheaper now than they were then.”

    Please tell us what they are? According to Exxon, Nuclear costs about 5p/ KW/h wholesale; onshore wind about 4p, offshore 6p, solar pv 11p, concentrated solar 8p. CCS is unproven to work at industrial scale, and if it did Coal with CCS would be 7p/unit. So apart from onshore wind, which has limits in terms of location and nimbyism, they are all more expensive.
    I’m in favour of concentrated solar in hot sunny places, and long haul HVDC transmission – but let’s not pretend it’s cheap or politically simple. Whatever combination you pick has to be capable of generating 40GW or so to maintain our electricity supply – much more if you want to replace fossil fuel cars with electric ones.
    If you want cheap, straightforward coal/gas is the way to go. at around 4p/unit.

  • nuclear cockroach 9th Sep '13 - 9:55am

    “If you want cheap, straightforward coal/gas is the way to go. at around 4p/unit.”

    Is rubbish, for it doesn’t factor in the costs of mitigating the inevitable resultant climate change.

  • Simon McGrath 9th Sep '13 - 10:10am

    Our policy should be to be neutral between the different sources of low carbon energy. Set a carbon price and let suppliers decide the best way to deliver the power we need.

  • nuclear cockroach 9th Sep '13 - 10:23am

    @Simon McGrath

    Unfortunately our Chancellor and his chums are doing their best to redefine low carbon energy to include the combustion of unmitigated gas. Ignorance is Strength.

  • jenny barnes 9th Sep '13 - 10:50am

    Sure, nuclear cockroach. I think these technologies should all pay the costs of their externalities – climate change, storage of nuclear waste, whatever. My numbers are the costs in the current situation. If you like, you could put a cost of say…£40/tonne of emitted CO2 on every tech, that would put coal up to about 7p, gas around 5p. Or £100? Coal at 12, gas at 10p? Which would make concentrated solar competitive. However, that would create problems in the cement, steel, and aluminium industries to name but 3. With enough concentrated solar, of course, those heavy energy users could move nearer the source of supply, and I imagine a future of these industries on the South Mediterranean and West African coast, near the concentrated solar power stations.
    FYI the euro carbon trading scheme has a price of £5/tonne, but recent auction of energy company obligations reached £120/tonne http://www.insidehousing.co.uk/eco/price-of-carbon-soars-to-%C2%A3120-per-tonne-at-auction/6525902.article

  • I note that the FT reports this week that EDF are talking to Russian and Chinese state nuclear companies regarding partnerships to build the new UK nuclear reactors. It just gets worse. We have to get off the Uranium Nuclear Power roundabout.

  • nuclear cockroach 9th Sep '13 - 11:48am

    @jenny barnes

    The EU Emission Trading Scheme has been inflated near to the point of worthlessness. Governments believe in “free trade” – but only for industries in other countries. In the meantime they demand exemptions and the excess allocation of emissions permits for their nationally championed industries. The EU claims to be in the process of correcting the faults of the past; time will tell.

  • duncan greenland 9th Sep '13 - 1:28pm

    Excellent article but under a potentially misleading headline.Co,pletely agree with Tom Burke’s conclusion that the choice offered in the Glasgow Conference motion is ” a false choice over a fudge and should be rejected” but there is a very real national choice still to be made as to whether the UK should proceed with new nuclear plants.

    (it is possible to of course to disagree with the decision of the German conservative coalition that they will have no new nuclear and will decommission all the current plants,but it gives the lie to any suggestion that there is no choice )

    The choice is partly – but only partly – economic.Those who see it primarily as an economic choice should be reminded of the huge economic costs and economic risks involved in nuclear above and beyond the subsidy for the next 40 years of the Contract for Difference on the electricity price.It is the government (aka we the people ) ,not the French,Russian or Chinese owners of the nuclear plants who will ultimately bear the cost of waste disposal and the uninsurable risks of accident.

    As was clear from the evidence that the Public Accounts Committee took in January this year,no one knows for how many more decades the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority will need to continue to spend several billions of pounds each year trying to find a safe solution for the disposal of the nuclear waste that we have already,They do not know the eventual total,but agreed it would be “at least £100BN and rising .(Over 9,000 staff,the top sixteen of whom earn an average of £690,000 ! )

    You cannot predict the costs of what’s euphemistically called “clean up” if anything goes seriously wrong and you cannot get liaibility insurence.The Japan Centre for Economic Research estimates the Fukushima clean up costs at $250 BN.

    New nuclear is not a wise economic choice,but even more importantly it is not morally right..

    Our generation should not be saddling our children,our grandchildren and probably their grandchildren too, with the incalculable costs and risks of dealing with nuclear waste and nuclear accidents.

  • duncan greenland 10th Sep '13 - 11:27am

    All in favour of basing the debate on the facts,but some of those “facts” are necessarily “best projections” as to future costs ; what Stephen are the best projections in your analysis as to the future costs of nuclear waste disposal and over how many future decades ?
    What costs do you allow for to deal with future accidents ?

  • peter tyzack 10th Sep '13 - 12:54pm

    lets have a a debate based on the facts, but lets stop perpetrating this myth about nuclear.. the clean up costs and disposal of waste costs are phenomenal, even if there is no accident. Albeit that the industry claims to be very safe, the more you do something the greater the risk.
    Spend a fraction of the cost on emerging renewables, developing next generation PVs (the Chinese are ahead of us there). Big concrete construction projects are not the answer, they suit only the construction industry and their city investors.

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