Let there be (nuclear-powered) light

False analogies with Japan must not be allowed to influence our energy security debate. An expansion in civil nuclear power remains the best answer to our needs

David Merlin-Jones
On 12 April 2011 15:31

In the wake of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster being upgraded to a Chernobyl-esque danger level, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg may feel vindicated.

After the initial scare, he questioned whether nuclear power will have a future in Britain on an "it could happen here" basis. Apart from the sheer implausibility of fault line-free Britain suffering the same tragedy, the UK is simply not in a position to abandon its new nuclear programme as it would inevitably jeapordise our energy independence.

Currently, there are 19 British nuclear power plants, all uranium based and generating 18 percent of electricity consumed in the UK. All but one of these will have closed down by the end of 2023. In addition, 16 percent of fossil fuel power stations are expected to close by 2016.

However, the advent of the EU’s Industrial Emissions Directive in 2010 could force a total of 25 percent of fossil fuel power stations to close. A black-hole sized energy gap will soon open if nothing is done to replace them.

If energy supply is in doubt, the British economy will teeter on a knife-edge. With fossil fuel prices and climate-change legislation driving up British energy costs, a source of cheap power is desperately needed to prevent companies fleeing to countries that are not flagellating their industries.

The UK cannot afford to let its industry slide and risk a deeper, prolonged recession. Energy salvation should come in the form of five new state-of-the-art nuclear stations, with a combined output greater than all existing UK reactors. Prior to Fukushima, even Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne admitted that nuclear energy was a key solution to our future energy woes.

The low-carbon requirement for power generation is here to stay, but Clegg and Huhne now appear to have conveniently forgotten that nuclear power is carbon-zero, and delivers far more bang for your renewable buck.

France is well-known for its existing reliance on nuclear power, generating some 78 percent of its total electricity needs. This has had a huge impact on total power-sector carbon emissions. In 2008, France emitted 83g of CO2per kWh of electricity and heat generated, compared to 487g of CO2 for the UK and an OECD average of 433g.

Scrapping the proposed nuclear fleet would be fine if there was an alternative, but none exists. Renewables will not deliver the required power in time and Britain is out of its depth by promising 15 percent of power will come from them by 2020 -- from 2009-10, the share actually fell. It just won’t happen.

Oblivious to reality, Chris Huhne has claimed: “We can do the 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050 without new nuclear, but it will require a big effort on carbon capture and storage and renewables”.

To achieve this, the effort would involve giving renewable investments a carte blanche, which is clearly not the most cost effective way to deliver cheap, low-carbon energy. Domestic users will suffer higher bills and energy poverty will spread: martyrs to a dogmatic cause.

This reveals the real problem with the mentality behind the drive for future energy sources. In the UK, the term “renewable power” is seen as interchangeable with “low-carbon power”, a crucial mistake.

The former is only a means to reach the latter, not a goal in itself and useful only insofar as it is the most economic route. However, off-shore wind power costs 7.2p/kWh while nuclear power costs 2.3p/kWh. Without political bias, it is clear which low-carbon source should be favoured.

The sudden political U-turn on nuclear power isn’t even backed by the public. Despite the media frenzy around Fukushima, polls show opposition to British reactors rose only 11 percentage points to 28 percent from 19 percent. 35 percent are still in favour.

Previously, support for nuclear power had been growing year-on-year, with 47 percent favourable to retaining the current number of plants, and 40 percent wanting to increase them.

It should also be remembered that uranium is not the only source of nuclear power: thorium increasingly looks like the fuel of the future. Thorium dedicated reactors are smaller, more efficient and, critically, much safer. The Fukushima disaster would have been impossible had thorium reactors been in place.

India and China are already racing ahead in thorium technology and the UK would do well not to be left behind. China’s self-proclaimed motive behind the research is “to obtain all intellectual property rights” and India wants energy-independence. The UK should be striving for the same things, not sitting idly by.

Our energy needs are too crucial to leave to chance or the ideological whims of politicians. Like it or not, uranium power is a cornerstone of the UK’s power generation and is here to stay, at least until a viable alternative is found. Prematurely abandoning it on the basis of a single event would be economic suicide.

David Merlin-Jones is a Research Fellow at the independent think tank Civitas. He specialises in economics, energy and British industry

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