If Britain’s energy policy was like the Grand National, nuclear power would fall at virtually every fence. But somehow, irrationally, race stewards from the sector and the Department of Trade and Industry seem to have dragged its prospects to within sight of government backing to build new generating capacity. How?
Nuclear power is promoted as the answer to climate change and energy insecurity. It is neither. As a response to global warming, it is too slow, too expensive and too limited. In an age of terrorist threats, it is more of a security risk than a solution. Also, answers to the problems of waste and decommissioning are nowhere in sight.
In terms of the relative costs of reducing carbon emissions to tackle global warming, nuclear power comes at the end of a long list of options including: energy efficiency, combined heat and power, wind power, micro hydro, energy crops and wave power. Nuclear is also the least efficient at creating employment.
An analysis of figures relied on by the government suggests that they have underestimated the true costs of new nuclear power by nearly threefold. Starting from the British Energy/BNFL estimate of 3p/kWh, the price goes up 1.3p/kWh by using an average, rather than best, cost for new reactors. Using the International Energy Agency’s construction estimates pushes the price up by the same again. So-called “first-of-a-kind” costs incurred with new reactor designs add about 0.1p/kWh.
Allowing for delays and cost overruns adds at least a further 1.8p/kWh. Lowering the assumed performance of new stations to what has been achieved adds 0.8p/kWh, taking the total to around 8.3p/kWh. These costs exclude risks and liabilities arising from under-insurance, pollution and terrorism.
There are also holes in the claim that nuclear provides energy security. The industry has a habit of losing radioactive material and a dirty little secret about how little high-grade uranium ore is left to fuel reactors. The International Atomic Energy Agency said last year that “the key question is how long nuclear resources might last” and cited known conventional resources of uranium as enough to last only 85 years for the most common type of reactors at 2002 rates of use and slightly longer for others.
Also, a nuclear industry relying on hugely energy-intensive fuel extraction from low-grade ore is far from carbon- free. One of the only full life-cycle analyses of nuclear plants, by retired nuclear physicist and former nuclear advocate Philip Bartlett Smith, concluded that even in the best case nuclear required significant emissions. In the worst case, using low grade ores, it was less climate-friendly than a gas -fired power station.
The physical limitations of nuclear were also revealed in a recent Massachusetts Institute of Technology report. It showed that to increase nuclear’s share of world electricity by just 2 per cent by 2050 would mean an additional 1,000-1,500 new large nuclear plants. While even this looks impossible, there are several other reasons for caution.
There are already hundreds of tonnes of high-level radioactive material for which no inventory exists and blueprints for nuclear hardware are increasingly available on the international black market. An expanding sector would make nuclear proliferation – Iran – and terrorism not just more likely but almost inevitable.
Accidents, too, are expensive. Ukraine’s bill more than a decade after the Chernobyl disaster was more than $120bn (£68bn). Swiss Re, the world’s second largest reinsurer, concludes: “One of the most perilous shortcomings in traditional property insurance and reinsurance concerns inadequate nuclear risk exclusions.”
We must also beware the law of unintended consequences. The energy review by the government’s performance and innovation unit warned that investment in new nuclear power plants could adversely affect the development of other technologies. Finland, the only developed country with a new nuclear programme, has been criticised by the IEA for underfunding and missing the goals of its renewable energy plan and has seen its emissions rise. Nuclear power, perversely, could hasten global warming.
If the government concedes to the nuclear industry’s demands to underwrite additional nuclear capacity it will be the biggest scam on the public since Enron discovered creative accounting or Nigeria discovered the internet. But then, there is always a danger that big races get fixed by the organisers.
The writer is policy director of the New Economics Foundation and author of Ecological Debt: The Health of the Planet and the Wealth of Nations
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