Coal, not nuclear, is the new black

Published in Inside Track, the quarterly magazine of Green Alliance, Issue 11, Summer 2005.

You could have beeen forgiven for thinking that nuclear power was back in fashion. After the general election a barrage of headlines, column inches and sound bites heralded the return of nuclear power as an option for a government struggling to tackle carbon emissions and meet climate change targets.

In reality, the “secret” nuclear power which proved so seductive to over-gullible news editors was nothing more than an attempt by the nuclear industry and its allies in DTI to bounce incoming Ministers. . There are now clear signs that the Ministers recognised a bounce when they saw it and those people waiting for an early White paper on nuclear power should stop holding their breath.

Whitehall’s leaked secret plan was nothing more than one of the options papers civil servants produce like confetti for incoming Ministers during a general election. There are some who share the nuclear lobby’s enthusiasm. Long-term nuclear hawk and Number 10 adviser Geoffrey Norris, a sacked Energy Minister, an increasingly barmy botanist, and a handful of journalists who don’t have a strong grasp on the reality of energy policy. But increasingly, there are more who reject a nuclear revival.

Take the Treasury. Not so long ago they confirmed they were doing no work on new ways to finance nuclear construction. Ministers have indicated that they would be delighted if someone wanted to build a nuclear power plant as long as they paid for it themselves. There is no sign of any Government willingness to pay it. Furthermore, the likely bill for the recent leak at Sellafield is a powerful reminder of just how expensive nuclear mistakes can be..

Nor is there much interest within the wider electricity industry. According to the authoritative 2005 PWC survey of utility boardrooms found the industry’s leaders’ expectations that nuclear power plants would be replaced had fallen by half since 2004 to a miniscule 15 per cent.

So what did prompt the media flurry? The nuclear lobby are desperately stirring up a culture of fear to enable a nuclear renaissance based on two factors. First, nine of the UK’s 12 nuclear power plants are scheduled for closure in 2020. It takes time to build nuclear power plants and there a multitude of hurdles to overcome from financing new plant to securing planning permission, tackling the resulting waste issues and generally winning over a sceptical public. Failure to act now would cost us dearly later.

Second, the nuclear industry hopes that the rising trend in carbon dioxide emissions, will make the difference. Since the renewables cannot replace the nuclear in time and we should not become over-dependent on imported gas, the only alternative is new nuclear.

Add in a lot of public money spent on expensive public relations consultants and an absence of well informed and numerate energy policy correspondents in the media and you get a big pile of erroneous headlines. And no-one in the media ever says sorry for getting it wrong.

While the industry and Government may share concerns about delivering targets for renewable energy, energy efficiency and carbon emission reduction targets, it doesn’t mean that they are ready to see a skewing of the energy market in Britain to enable a 10-strong nuclear power plant programme to kick off.

Ten is the magic number in the nuclear world. Anything less and you don’t achieve the economies of scale to make nuclear a competitive option. But such a massive infrastructure project is unlikely to be started without contributions from the public purse or rigging the electricity market sufficiently to cover private investors’ risks.

Neither seems attractive . British Energy needed a half billion pound rescue by the taxpayer three years ago when energy prices fell by almost half. To protect a ten reactor programme from such a price fall you would have to fix the amount and price for its output for at least long enough to pay for the £12 –15 billion capital cost. Unsurprisingly support for such a move is limited.

The nuclear industry has donned a green cloak to open up the second option – access to the public purse. If the nuclear lobby could convince us that it can help the UK overcome its looming carbon emissions problem then it might have a future.

Dream on. . This is heroic optimism. It would require the nuclear industry to do better than it has ever done before in designing and constructing nuclear power stations. It would need to convince a very sceptical public that there really was a solution for the waste problem. And it would be required to do this for a wholly new design of power station. No-one is suggesting we repeat currently operating reactors, designed some three decades ago. Even in a best case scenario with the first orders issued in 2007 it is unlikely that more than three new plants could be built by 2020. This would still leave us six reactors short of replacing the current stations.

Fortunately, there is an alternative. Not surprisingly perhaps, the nuclear industry seems to have forgotten coal. Coal currently supplies about 30 per cent of the UK’s electricity and remains a global energy player. Many of our existing coal plants will also have to be replaced in the next 15 years. It is coal, not nuclear, that is the new black.

To comeback coal will certainly need a makeover. We will need to use the advanced coal technologies with carbon capture and storage that can generate electricity without releasing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. These technologies are available for deployment now.

China is currently building a new 1GW coal fired power station every week. If the 1400 coal fired power stations the IEA forecasts will be built globally by 2030 (over 600 of them in China) are built with conventional technology the it won’t really matter how Britain deals with the emissions gap created by the closure of its nuclear plants in 2020.

The single most urgent task in the battle to preserve a stable climate is preventing global ‘lock-in’ to coal burn using conventional technologies. While there are many technologically and economically available routes to a stable climate that do not involve coal they are not politically available. The Chinese, Indians, North Americans and many others will use their coal resources come what may.

The immediate political challenge in climate change is to change the technology trajectory of global coal burn. But we cannot expect the Chinese to do things we are not prepared to do ourselves. Therefore, we must be willing to use ourselves the same advanced coal technologies we wish them to use. If we do so, we will have a cheaper, safer and more acceptable way to replace our nuclear power stations at the end of their life.

To date the Prime Minister has played the nuclear question with his usual skill at letting everyone hear what they want to hear. He now has a unique opportunity to give substance to his leadership on climate change. Through the UK’s joint presidencies of the G8 and the EU Mr Blair can bring coal back into the debate in a positive and much needed way. If he is successful then he will have made an emission-free coal option available nationally long before we have to shut our nuclear stations. If he fails, then it won’t really matter all that much to our children how much public money we might waste on pursuing the nuclear chimera.