Opinion: the case against new nukes

This week’s announcement by John Hutton of a new generation of nuclear power plants sparked some lively exchanges in the House of Commons. Following my observations, the Secretary of State offered me a bold print version ‘to help me understand it’, and said the best emissions to cut down would be the ones from my mouth! So a good consensual start then…

Given that opinions vary considerably both between parties and within our party about new nuclear, I thought it might be helpful to offer a bit of background to our judgment that new nuclear plants are not what we need in response to the energy issues facing the UK.

The first thing we all want to see is security of energy supply, but new nuclear does not really address the key concerns. As far as ‘keeping the lights on’, the shortfall in total capacity is likely to occur long before new nuclear could be seriously on stream – realistically put at 2020 at the earliest. We need new energy sources long before 2020 and time and money diverted to prepare for new nuclear could actually be a distraction from this goal. As regards problems with overseas energy sources, the main concerns are oil and gas imports, but new nuclear electricity is not much of a substitute for either unless our transport and heating needs start to be met in very different ways.

The other goal is to get our energy in a way that drastically reduces CO2 emissions. Leaving aside the fact that new nuclear build and operation is hardly ‘carbon-free’, there are better ways to achieve this desirable goal. These include much greater use of renewable sources (as many other European countries are doing), serious action on energy conservation and efficiency, and a serious look at ‘carbon capture’ technologies which could mean our remaining gas and coal stations could be operated in a much less damaging way.

The Government claimed yesterday that the new nuclear stations would need no public subsidy, but the small print already shows that they are paving the way for backdoor subsidies through pricing and help with clean-up costs. It is hard to believe that private companies will invest for decades in the face of uncertain liabilities, especially when the Government has still to be specific on exactly how the waste will finally be disposed of.

The statement yesterday was a clear signal to the nuclear industry that the Government will give them the guarantees that they seek, and those guarantees have an economic value which would be better spent on alternative strategies that would yield faster results and be more flexible and more sustainable.

Steve Webb MP is Lib Dem Environment & Energy Spokesperson. The Liberal Democrat petition against nuclear power is at ourcampaign.org.uk/no2nuclear

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • It is good to see LibDem positive policies put clearly.

    Apart from coming producing power late, the troubles with nuclear power are:

    1. Nobody knows how safe/dangerous nuclear power is as compared to other forms of generation. The proper calulation/analysis of risk over the whole life of the plants and their waste can be done to a rough approximation; but never has been properly done. I suspect both supporters and opponents of nuclear power are frightened of what the results might be.
    2. Equally, there are no thorough and properly checked costings (neither in cash nor in carbon equivalents) of nuclear power as compared to the equivalents over the whole life of the plants and their waste. I suspect that the nuclear supporters are frightened of these calculations; quite possibly needlessly frightened.

    Until the government has come forward with checkable authoritative calculations on these counts, we have no grounds for thinking that they know what they are talking about. Given the record of economy with the truth in past Labour and Conservative government statements on nuclear policy, and given New Labour’s ten year record of deciding first and finding out what is wrong with the policies afterwards, how can any reasonable person accept John Hutton’s emotional conversion to the “nuclear faith” as a sensible base for national or international policy? Still less can we accept that there really is no hidden subsidy from public funds.

  • Why is no one making more of Brown’s brother being an employee of EDF?

  • Interestingly the Swedish sister party of Liberal Democrats, Liberal People’s Party, just yesterday demanded that Sweden should build more nuclear energy and give up developing ethanol fuel, which isn’t seen as an efficient way to meet the increasing demand for energy and the climate change.

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