Welcome to Peace News, the newspaper for the UK grassroots peace and justice movement. We seek to oppose all forms of violence, and to create positive change based on cooperation and responsibility. See more

"Peace News has compiled an exemplary record... its tasks have never been more critically important than they are today." Noam Chomsky

  • facebook
  • rss
  • twitter

A nuclear renaissance?

For the past year the British press has been full of speculation as to whether the governmentis ready to launch a new nuclear power programme. The right-wing press, in particular, has been pushing the line that nuclear power is the only way to solve climate change. But Pete Roche argues that nuclear's contribution to reducing carbon dioxide emissions can only ever be small and may even be counter-productive in the fight against climate change.

Despite press speculation, the Government has continued to repeat its official position that, although the nuclear option cannot be ruled out, there are no proposals to build more reactors.

Former Energy Minister Mike O'Brien told a Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) Conference in December 2004 that it will up to the private sector to prove that nuclear power is economic: "... at the moment there is no commercial proposition on the table... If we thought that a [nuclear] project was a commercially serious proposition we would look at it."

So the reality is that the government would happily consider an application for nuclear powerstations right now from anyone who wanted to build one, but noone is offering.

A nuclear renaissance?

As soon as the general election was out of the way a paper by Joan MacNaughton, head of energy policy at the Department of Trade and Industry, was widely leaked to the press. She said a decision is needed quickly on new nuclear power stations to avoid a steep drop in nuclear output by 2020, because it will take at least a decade to get stations operational and targets to reduce carbon dioxide emissions are likely to be missed. MacNaughton advised the new Secretary of State, Alan Johnson,that "it is generally easier to push ahead on controversial issues early in a new parliament". However, she did acknowledge there are still some formidable obstacles to a nuclear renaissance, not least of which is working out a way to finance new stations, and finding a solution to the nuclear waste problem.  

The nuclear industry is pressing the Government to commit to the biggest nuclear power programme since the 1960s with the construction of up to 10 new nuclear stations in an attempt to replace our existing stations as most of them close down over the next twenty years.

Round the track (again)

A little over two years ago, in February 2003, the Government published an Energy White Paper which concluded: "...the current economics of nuclear power make it an unattractive option ... and there are important issues of nuclear waste to be resolved ... Before any decision to proceed with the building of new nuclear power stations, there would need to be the fullest public consultation and the publication of a white paper setting out the Government's proposals."    

Nothing much has changed since 2003, yet the industry ispressing for another White Paper which, this time, it hopes will give the green light to new nuclear construction. Clearly there are discussions going on about how to manipulate the market to allow new nuclear reactors to go ahead. What the nuclear industry wants is to get its hands on taxpayers' or consumers' money to subsidise its new reactors, with climate change providing the justification. Many commentators are predicting that a new draft White Paper will emerge towards the end of this year, or the beginning of 2006.

Inherently safe?

If nuclear stations are given the go-ahead, the untried and untested BNFL/Westinghouse AP1000 design is the type most likely to be built. The 2003 White Paper already looked at the costings for these reactors and concluded they are still too expensive.    

The design is one of the new so-called "inherently safe" systems. But there is nothing inherently safe about a highly hazardous plant, which has a fuel core packed with highly radioactive spent fuel. In fact, the design is more about saving money than improving safety. The AP1000 is basically a type of Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) like the Sizewell B reactor, but with many of the safety systems stripped out. But even these cost savings are not enough to make nuclear economic without some kind of further taxpayer or consumer subsidies.

The thorny issue: waste

On nuclear waste, the government's Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (www.corwm.org) is currently carrying out a consultation exercise on the best managementoptions. But as the Committee travels around the country, the public is making clear its view that we should not be planning to make yet more waste when we don't know what to do with waste we've already created.     

The industry argues that we have to deal with existing waste anyway, so a "little" more won't make much difference. But we know from CoRWM's work that ten new reactors would more than double the amount of high-level waste or spent fuel we will be left to deal with. CoRWM will make its recommendations to the Government in July 2006. However, the nuclear waste issue will not be resolved then. It is quite likely that a site selection process will still be required.

A cheaper, safer solution

If public money is going to have to be spent on driving carbon out of the economy, then any government is going to want the biggest carbon bang for its buck. Nuclear power is probably one of the least efficient ways of spending our money. Investment in energy efficiency typically displaces up to seven times the amount of carbon dioxide as investment in nuclear power.     

Electricity is only part of our overall energy consumption. Oil used for transport and gas used for heating are also a big part offinal energy demand. Consequently electricity generation isresponsible for only around a quarter of carbon emissions in Britain. So a replacement nuclear programme can only ever make a relatively small contribution to our efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions -- around five to seven percent. Is it really worth the hassle? -- especially when you consider that the financial assistance and the human energy required to support a new nuclear programme is going to detract from support for renewables and energy efficiency.

Making Britain more energy efficient is a far safer and cheaper solution. We can start making savings now, rather than in a decade or more when new stations are built. We could easily halve energy consumption, with no real impact on living standards.

Just one example: a number of companies in the UK are already marketing domestic-scale combined heat and power boilers (ormicro-CHP), which can replace domestic central heating boilers and generate electricity as well as heat, using less energy than the standard heating boilers of today. Projections suggest a rapid take-up of micro CHP, with some 5 to 12 million units installed by 2020. This scale of market penetration could replace over half of the UK's nuclear capacity, and generate electricity more cheaply. 

"Security nightmare"

The public is going to find it very hard to understand why, if the situation is so serious with regard to terrorism that we needto lock up suspects without trial, the government appears to be very relaxed about the cre ation of 10 more potential Chernobyl-scale targets. 

Any solution to climate change needs to have international application. Nuclear power doesn't because of the risks of terrorism and nuclear proliferation. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- along with several other commentators -- has pointed to the "security nightmare" caused by trying to deal with climate change by building nukes. Reason enough on its own to reject the nuclear option.

Pete Roche is an Edinburgh-based Energy and Environment consultant working mainly for Greenpeace and the Nuclear-Free Local Authorities (email rochepete8@aol.com; http://www.no2nuclearpower.org.uk)

What YOU can do

  • Stay informed - consult www.no2nuclearpower.org.uk to keep up to speed with how government plans are progressing. (And www.no2nukes.com)
  • Make sure you are using energy saving light bulbs; that you regularly turn your electrical equipment off, rather than leaving it on stand-by; and that your house is properly insulated.
  • Switch your own electricity supplierto one that supplies green electricity (http://www.greenelectricity.org)
  • Install solar panels, a micro-CHP boiler or a roof-top wind turbine if you can afford it. You may be eligible for a grant. http://www.est.org.uk/
  • Make sure your MP doesn't think that nuclear power is a solution to climate change. Ask them to support the Private Members Bills by Alan Whitehead MP and Mark Lazarowicz MP which aim to promote micro-renewables. (http://www.micropower.co.uk/content1.cfm?pageid=144)
  • Lobby your local authority to makesure it is purchasing renewable electricity and that its planning policiesare forcing the construction industry to include a contribution from renew-able energy in any developments above a certain size. (Seehttp://www.solarcentury.co.uk/news/ newsitem.jsp?newsid=417)
Topics: Nuclear Power