The Nuclear Debate

In a two-part debate for the BBC News website, the Vice President of the Royal Society, Sir David Wallace, and I discuss whether or not a new generation of nuclear reactors should be built in the UK. Published Monday 17th October, 2005. Follow the links below for the full debates:

The nuclear debate: Part One.
The nuclear debate: Part Two.

Below are my statements within the debate:

The Nuclear Debate: Part One
Dear Sir David,

We agree about a great deal.

I share your view that combating climate change is vital to the future well being of everyone on the planet.

I also agree that we must meet the growing demand for energy in a way that is compatible with a stable climate. This will indeed
mean very significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

You are also right to emphasise the need to base our judgements on evidence not ideology, though I am not sure who exactly you think is taking an ideological stance.

Furthermore, in relation to the UK, I agree with your conclusion that renewable energy, even with a much greater effort, will not be able to replace the electricity currently provided by those nuclear power stations that will reach the end of their life by 2020.

There are two reasons why I part company with you on the role nuclear power has to play in Britain.

The first concerns what is happening in the rest of the world. The second is particular to Britain.

The EU has indicated that it believes allowing the planet’s temperature to increase by more than 2C would be dangerous.

We know from recent studies that if the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere exceeds 400 parts per million the probability of remaining within this limit is low. We also know that at the current rate of increase we will pass this point in just over a decade.

Time to act is very short.

Globally, new coal fired power stations are being commissioned at the rate of more than one a week. More than 1,400 are forecast to be built by 2030, about 600 of them in China alone.

If they are built with conventional technology there is no prospect of maintaining a stable climate whatever else we do.

Many possible routes to a stable climate are technologically and economically available but there is no politically available route that does not include Chinese, Indian and North American coal, largely for energy security reasons.

The Chinese energy future already includes the world’s most ambitious nuclear programme but this does not significantly reduce the country’s need for coal.

The single most urgent task, therefore, for the world community is to prevent lock-in to carbon-intensive coal-generated electricity.

This means bringing about the large scale deployment of advanced coal technologies with carbon sequestration and storage within the next decade to reduce these emissions to a safer level.

For Britain, nuclear power is irrelevant.

It is has no attractions for private investors in a competitive electricity market as it produces no revenues for at least seven years, is subject to a host of difficult to quantify socio-political risks and is only economically viable in very large tranches of perhaps 10 reactors.

Financing a programme this big means paying for it out of the public purse or rigging the electricity market sufficiently to cover the private investors’ risks – which would, incidentally, also considerably reduce the scope for the diversity of supply you rightly commend.

Past experience with this course is not encouraging.

British Energy needed a £500m rescue three years ago when electricity prices fell by almost half.

To protect a 10-reactor programme from such a price fall you would have to fix the amount and price of its output long enough to at least pay for the full capital cost.

It is not difficult to work out why the rest of the electricity industry and any consumer, public service or business that uses electricity might object.

But let us suppose, bravely, that all these obstacles could be overcome. Even so, a new nuclear power programme cannot help Britain very much with its climate dilemma.

Starting from now, the very earliest an order for a new nuclear power station could be placed is 2007. Beginning there and doing better than has ever been done before, you might have your first station operating by 2015.

If you then start ordering two at a time, and do even better, you would still be lucky to have three in operation by 2020 when your nine station emission gap appears.

Fortunately, if we do what is right for the planet we will have made available to Britain the advanced coal technologies that provide a more viable option for meeting our electricity needs.

We have long experience in using coal to provide our electricity. It is far more attractive to private investors and would therefore require much less intervention by government – and cost to taxpayers.

The brutal truth is that no-one has yet managed to work out a way of getting nuclear reactors to burn uranium as effectively as they burn money.

Nor has anyone discovered how to make atoms work for peace without making them available for war.

By abandoning the nuclear chimera we offer both our ourselves and the world a far more realisable option for jointly meeting our climate and our energy needs.

Yours sincerely,

Tom Burke

The Nuclear Debate: Part Two

Dear Sir David,

I agree with you that the government has some tough political choices to make in this parliament – which leaves me baffled by your conclusion that “we need technologies to be ruled in at this point, not ruled out”.

Making choices is all about ruling some things out.

Doing a little of everything is a recipe for doing nothing very well. It is an evasion of precisely those tough choices you argue for.

It is disingenuous of you to compare the volume of radioactive waste with the volume of CO2 emissions.

In my long involvement in the debate over nuclear power I do not recall anyone ever arguing that the problem with radioactive waste was that we did not have enough room on the planet to put it all in.

The problem with radioactive waste is that it is radioactive. The volume, or indeed the weight, are immaterial. The issue that matters to the public is not how much there is, but how radioactive it is.

Some of it will remain so for longer than recorded human history. The challenge is not that of finding enough space for it, but of finding a barrier sufficiently robust to prevent it harming human beings.

There are many serious problems associated with the burning of coal other than emissions of CO2. This is why organisations such as Greenpeace are currently campaigning against its further use.

These include emissions of nitrogen and sulphur dioxides which cause acid rain, fine particulates that are damaging to respiration and mercury.

However, I see no politically available route to a stable climate that does not involve Chinese, Indian and North American coal for energy security reasons.

Therefore we need to focus our efforts on changing the technology deployed to use that coal so as to reduce its impact on the climate. This means accelerating the deployment of coal gasification technologies.

In addition, coal gasification, which allows you to extract the CO2 before combustion, not only reduces the cost of its eventual sequestration it also allows you to strip out the sulphur, mercury and particulates and to reduce the nitrogen emissions.

Coal gasification is not a new technology. We already have considerable experience with it. What is new is the idea of combining gasification with electricity generation and that does raise some important issues but they are institutional rather than technological.

You are right to say that this will cause some incremental increase in the cost of building new coal-fired power stations. My understanding is that these are rather less than you suggest but even so they will have to be paid.

I do not think the additional cost of then sequestering the CO2 will be a significant barrier to its deployment.

Since there is a clear public good to be obtained from bringing about this technology shift – the maintenance of a stable climate – there is a clear case for meeting those additional cost from the public purse.

We will, of course, have to do this cost-effectively by building public-private partnerships in order to get the best value for the public money spent.

You are also right to raise concerns, shared by many people, about the integrity of the reservoirs in which CO2 will need to be sequestered for very long periods.

It will not be enough to rely on the common sense observation that these formations have been stable for many millions of years otherwise the oil, gas or saline water in them would have found its way to the surface already. We will need to devise sophisticated monitoring systems and response plans for dealing with possible breaches of reservoir integrity but these are both well within our current technical capabilities.

We share a common concern about the scale and urgency of the problem facing humanity.

I think we also agree that the political choices made on energy and climate policy in the coming decade will amongst the most significant ever made in history.

We differ only in our judgement as to what pattern of choice will best contribute to the task in hand.

Yours sincerely,

Tom Burke

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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