The Independent View: Liberal Democrats should support nuclear power

nuclear-power-station

Liberal Democrats should vote to support nuclear power at the 2013 conference. I say this after 20 years campaigning against nuclear power, including five years as head of Greenpeace UK. Nuclear is not perfect. But it is better than fossil fuels.

The best form of energy is energy efficiency. Next best are renewables. But however efficient we get, and however fast we expand wind, it will take many decades before we can be entirely reliant on renewables. Denmark has set itself a target of 2050 for this. The EU has a target of 20% by 2020. If the 2020 target is met, that still leaves 80% of the journey to travel. So other low-carbon technologies are needed to protect the climate.

Nuclear power is very low carbon. Taking account of the full life cycle (mining,  decommissioning etc.) it emits no more carbon dioxide per unit of electricity than wind power does, and substantially less than solar photovoltaics or biomass. Gas power stations emit only half as much as coal stations do, but around a hundred times as much as nuclear.

Gas with carbon capture and storage would be low-carbon enough, but nobody knows how much that would cost. Nuclear power is not cheap. But the long-term contract price (so-called strike price) set once the Energy Bill becomes law will be lower for nuclear than for renewables or carbon capture and storage. Offshore wind will receive a strike price one-and-a-half times as large as nuclear’s. In any case, we need to invest in all the low-carbon options. Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, has correctly identified climate change as “by far the greatest economic threat of the 21st century”.

It’s not just an economic threat.  The Intergovernmental  Panel on Climate Change said in its 2007 Assessment Report that every year 150,000 people die prematurely due to the effects of climate change. It’s never comfortable to trade one set of deaths against another – but that’s many more people than nuclear power has ever killed. Nuclear waste is certainly an issue, but better to keep waste on the ground, where we can at least manage it, than to put it, in the form of carbon dioxide, up into the atmosphere where we can do nothing about it.

In my anti-nuclear days I always thought that the strongest argument against nuclear power was the link with weapons proliferation. It is hard – indeed hypocritical – to argue that nukes (power and weapons) are OK for the UK but not for Iran. The way to prevent proliferation is to create an international nuclear fuel bank, as Shirley Williams has argued for many years. And the UK should meet its own non-proliferation commitments by negotiating to get rid of Trident.

The Lib Dems have a good policy on Trident. A shift to supporting nuclear power would not be incompatible with this. Increasing numbers of Lib Dems now accept nuclear power as necessary, including Ed Davey and Chris Davies. Some prominent figures remain firmly opposed, notably Simon Hughes. I have great respect for Simon; he has contributed enormously to environmental causes for many years. But he is wrong on nuclear power.

* Stephen Tindale is a freelance energy and climate consultant. He was formerly executive director of Greenpeace UK.

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11 Comments

  • jenny barnes 27th Aug '13 - 10:48am

    “Gas with carbon capture and storage would be low-carbon enough, but nobody knows how xxxxxxxxxxxxx” to make it work” there. fixed that for you..
    There are other renewables apart from wind: concentrated solar in hot sunny places and long haul HVDC grids is both very low carbon, AND no nasty waste to deal with.

    If we are going to build nuclear, then I think the state should do it. The taxpayer is on the hook for clean up anyway, so why pay a lot of subsidy to skew the market to get these things built, when we can just buy it done directly.

  • CANDU reactors are the safest in the world because they use heavy water technology and moderated in such a way as to allow quick shut down in case of emergency. The cost of heavy water is greater than light water (LWR), though, and therefore most go for cheaper versus safer.

  • Julian Tisi 27th Aug '13 - 3:22pm

    Thanks for a very useful article.

    I must admit that I’m in favour of nuclear for the simple reason, as Stephen Tindale says, that it’s the cheapest form of low carbon energy there is… apart from energy efficiency, that is.

  • Finite resources will eventually threaten liberty, nuclear is finite. I would rather, radically, invest in something else. I am not sure that you can see far enough into the future and saying, indefinitely that: ‘Nuclear power is not cheap. But the long-term contract price (so-called strike price) set once the Energy Bill becomes law will be lower for nuclear than for renewables or carbon capture and storage.’

  • The price of nuclear hides the fact that it’s extremely cheap on fuel and hence running costs, but incredibly costly to build. In particular, it is a voracious consumer of engineering expertise. Everybody starts out by saying they will do it simply and just replicate what has been proven to work. Everybody ends up running ragged with modifications and precautions to demonstrate safety, because, well, the record isn’t great, is it?

    The French made nuclear work, by going hell-for-leather for an almost all-nuclear system. Nobody else has had the same success. The cost figures are mostly untrustworthy, because of interactions with defence costs and neglect of future clean-up costs.

    If we do go for nuclear, we will find that we forget all about solar and wind. We won’t have capital to spare, or engineers to spare, to work on those systems. We will also want to run nuclear on base load, so we won’t want to run it in parallel with a solar technology that shuts down in winter, and has to be supplemented with something else. So we will put all our eggs into one basket.

    I don’t see much evidence of other nations doing that. Lots of nations are building the occasional nuke so as to gain experience and be ready to do more if it seems to be working well. But few seem to want to bet the farm. The downside scares them off. Big accidents have come along every ten years or so, big county-scale areas have become wastelands, and whenever that happens, big premature plant closures follow.

  • Currently the only form of nuclear that is compatible with the LibDem’s stance on Trident and the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and their desire to be green is Thorium. Hence when supporting nuclear power it is necessary to be explicitly clear on what exactly is meant.

    Supporting “nuclear power” is a vote for more uranium and plutonium to be in circulation…

  • Nick Tregoning 28th Aug '13 - 3:23pm

    Absolutely agree. Julian Tisi has already highlighted Stephen Tindale’s point re cost. The other point that does it for me is that there is no other low carbon way to bridge the gap between coal/gas generation, and renewables coming online in sufficient quantity.

  • If next week someone comes along and posts saying “I worked all my life in the nuclear industry and I think we should abandon this technology.” then perhaps it will become clearer why argumentation by autobiography is not argumentation at all.

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