Economics freezes nuclear frisson

‘View from the top’, published in Research Europe, April 2008.

During last month’s state visit to Britain by French President Nicolas Sarkozy an entente formidable was proudly declared. One of the strongest ligatures in this new entente is to be close cooperation to make Europe the leader in a global drive to a nuclear future, or so we have been led to believe. This will not be the first dream of permanent amity between Britain and France to founder on the reefs of reality.

Strong personal conviction does not always turn into successful policy. The minutes of a Cabinet meeting in October 1979 record the decision of Margaret Thatcher’s government to build 10 nuclear reactors, with arguments that are eerily familiar. Oil prices were rising, energy demand increasing, Britain’s energy security was threatened. Without a crash building programme, Britons would be freezing in the dark. More than 15 years later, one nuclear reactor had been built at more than double the original cost. No-one froze in the dark.

The discovery of oil and gas in the North Sea played no part in the demise of nuclear power in Britain. Its demise was brought about entirely by Thatcher’s decision to privatise the electricity industry, which produced commercially credible accounts for the first time. Investors were unimpressed. The economics of nuclear were so bad that it had to remain in public ownership for electricity privatisation to proceed. They have not improved since.

THE OBSTACLES ARE INDEED formidable to a successful resurrection of Britain’s moribund nuclear industry, which is crucial if a truly mutually beneficial partnership is to be realised. Estimates of the capital cost of a new reactor have risen from $2,000 (1,400 euros) per kilowatt two years ago to some $6,000 per kW today. The much vaunted Finnish reactor, under construction for just two years, is already two years late and about £1 billion over budget. The nuclear supply chain is ferociously constricted, according to a paper published last June by the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington DC, Economics of Nuclear Power and Proliferation Risks in a Carbon-Constrained World, and re-issued in December by The Electricity Journal. Lack of expertise and experience present further problems.

UK government ministers have been blunt: nuclear power is needed for climate security, to stop the lights going out, and to avoid Britain becoming dangerously dependent on unreliable supplies of gas from Russia. But none of these arguments stands up.

For a start, the government concedes that, even under its accelerated procedures, the earliest a new nuclear power station could operate is 2020. Unfortunately, this will be too late to help with the 20 gigawatts of additional generation that will be needed by then to replace the obsolete coal and nuclear plant. Even if the government overcomes its current torpor on renewables, it still means much of this capacity will come from new carbon intensive gas and coal.

Furthermore, new nuclear build cannot significantly reduce our dependence on gas. About half of Britain’s gas is used for domestic heat. Another quarter is used for industrial heat or as a chemical feedstock. Only a quarter of our gas is used to produce electricity. Of that quarter, a significant proportion is used during periods of peak demand, which nuclear generation cannot supply.

Last year, the world added 55GW of renewables to its capacity. Nuclear generation globally added a mere 2GW, a bit less than was added by photovoltaics. Wind power alone added seven times as much. Simply to replace the world’s current nuclear capacity means building 14 reactors a year until 2030, against the one a year now managed. Not surprisingly, the International Energy Agency sees very little additional nuclear by 2030.

The alleged ‘nuclear renaissance’ is occurring only in the headlines. It is not even occurring in France. Responding to the conclusions of the Grenelle dialogue on the environment last October, Sarkozy promised that France was not going to replace its existing nuclear fleet in its entirety. In future, he said, no more than 60 per cent of France’s electricity will be produced from nuclear, which is well down on the current 85 per cent.

Given that the demands of simultaneously decommissioning old stations while building new ones might strain even EDF’s state-protected balance sheet, this may turn out to be sound economic policy as well as good energy policy. It’s not clear why the French President should encourage the British Premier to do something he is not going to do himself, if ever he did and Gordon Brown listened, but there is no doubt who would benefit—EDF and Areva.

Quite how this unholy alliance is in the interest of Europe’s citizens remains to be revealed. The reality is that this nuclear folly is a massive distraction from the task of protecting the security and prosperity of 450 million Europeans from climate change. As Jim Hansen, the US climatologist, has recently pointed out, the priority in meeting that challenge is to come up with carbon neutral coal. Our money, engineers and technology need to be focused on that task, and not frittered away on the pursuit of a fading nuclear fantasy.

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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