Nuclear power is the answer to our energy trilemma

Nuclear power is the best way of satisfying Britain's conflicting urges for cheap, secure, green energy

Sizewell B power station
Warren Clegg
On 24 January 2013 22:40

We face an energy trilemma: we currently seek secure, green and cheap energy. Each discrete component is linked ineluctably to the other although they are not all directly proportional and they scale inconsistently. Different individuals, businesses and lobbies too often focus on one or the other of these three requirements for our future energy supply.

Strategically a holistic approach is essential – one that stresses the importance of them all. Yet for the strategy to succeed we must develop tactics – achievable tactics. And that means whilst recognising the other two, we must start with a preference for energy security, sustainability or cost.

The green lobby demands that the most important requirement is green and sustainable energy. They care not about the cost or the security of the supply. As long as the energy supply is decarbonised they are mostly happy.

Individuals prefer price. They want to be able to afford to put the heating on during the cold winter nights and not have to sacrifice the other of life’s essentials for warmth. Generally speaking, when they turn on the heating, the main thought that crosses the individual mind is whether they can afford the energy they use.

Businesses worry about energy supply. They want to know that the lights remain on and the machinery in the factory remains productive. As long as there is an output powered by secure energy they are content.

Unfortunately the above three examples are simplistic. Each cares about the other two choices in the trilemma. The factory owner not only requires energy security but he craves cheap energy – both affect the profit margins. The individual needs cheap energy but cares about the environment for the next generation. The green lobby desires sustainable energy but understands the elderly needs low priced power to avoid fuel poverty.

Let’s say, for arguments sake, we start with decarbonising our energy supply as our main priority. We could end up with higher energy bills and reduced energy security. Subsidies on green energy increase the cost of bills and relying on intermittent wind could reinforce our reliance on non-cooperative petro-powers.

Conversely, one could argue that eventually, after several decades, green energy may well become cheaper – supporting itself – and providing security which is not slave to the whims of the global energy market. I do not share this opinion. There are many other implications; biofuels from green energy drive up the cost of food prices making disposable income for families even lower and wind farms blight rural communities.

I actually believe that our main priority must be energy security. If our main effort is to keep the lights on, our economy will not be disadvantaged by the sort of power outage which struck India last summer, wreaking economic havoc and almost incalculable reputational damage. A secure and stable supply, which is not subject to price volatility, is more likely to produce cheaper energy for families and businesses.

Eventually we can decarbonise this secure energy supply, should we wish, by gradually moving to cleaner fossil fuels: carbon capture & storage and gas (aided by shale discoveries). The green agenda must take a more passive role but once we are comfortable with cost and security, green technology can assume a greater role if beneficial. During this transition we should invest in British renewable fledgling-technology – and certainly not continue to subsidise mature wind technology where most profits go overseas to German manufactures – to further help our own economy to grow.

Is there a magic bullet to solve this trilemma? Perhaps. I am of the opinion that nuclear energy solves most of our trilemma challenges. Security of supply is guaranteed: the majority of our uranium comes from Canada and Australia – two of our oldest and dearest allies; nuclear energy is cheap compared to other forms of energy (indeed both the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Committee on Climate Change say it is the second cheapest form of generation after hydropower), driving down consumer costs; and, the green credentials of nuclear are established – an operating nuclear power station emits almost no carbon in to atmosphere.

Nuclear does carry some disadvantages such as initially very high development costs and the niggling worry over radioactive waste management, but these disadvantages pale when matched against the clear advantages nuclear provides.

The new Energy Bill – on first examination - is very disappointing. I believe its priorities are wrong and our energy trilemma is not properly addressed. The Government appears set on forcing families to turn the thermostat down – or even off – in favour of turning renewable subsidies up.

Families and businesses across the country would surely rather start at the other end of this inverse proportionality problem by cutting energy costs. But the Liberals in Government have more than their fair share of influence with the end result being the ramping up of little old ladies’ energy bills.

Each political party appears to have its own twist on which strand of the trilemma ought to be stressed first and indeed most vigorously.

I have estimated, from a total of ten, how much capital I believe each political party allocates to the three concepts. I calculate what I believe the Coalition should focus on based on each respective party’s share of the Government’s vote. Finally, I have estimated what I believe the current Government’s stresses are. These are shown below in a graph.

As you can see of my opinion, the Lib Dems wield far too much influence over the Government’s energy policy. I believe that influence is unwanted and undesirable. We need to readdress the imbalance in our energy strategy to enable our country and its economy to grow – while securing our supply, reducing our costs, and starting to invest in British renewable technologies such as tidal current.

The Government must stop wasting consumers’ money with green subsidies. It is bad for the consumer and bad for the economy. It must stop penalising oil and gas companies that provide cheap energy to support our economy and help them focus on gas or carbon capture and storage.

Most importantly, it must help establish a new fleet of nuclear power stations to provide cheap, secure, and green energy. If we embrace the right priorities now then it will be easier to break the triple horns of the trilemma for the future.

Warren Clegg is a former senior researcher for a Conservative MP, where he specialised in energy

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