Friday, February 16, 2007

Court ruling good for both friends and foes of nuclear power

Greenpeace scored a stunning court victory on the government's consultation on nuclear power [see BBC / Greenpeace]. This should be widely welcomed - even by nuclear proponents and especially by ministers. It does mean that the government will have to spend more time winning hearts and minds and give a more thoroughly argued and specific case. And, if alternatives are available, it would allow these to surface. I must confess to having been sceptical that this case would win - on the basis that there were many steps still to go before the nuclear policy framework was fully in place and much consulting still to be done - but Greenpeace has outed the extent to which due process appears to have been following decisions already made. So what has gone wrong...?

In its 2003 white paper [here] the government said:

Before any decision to proceed with the building of new nuclear power stations, there will need to be the fullest public consultation and the publication of a further white paper setting out our proposals.
The original consultation "Our Energy Challenge" was really a compendium of statistics designed to establish a context in which a nuclear programme was seen as the most credible response to meeting the challenges of climate change and security of supply. The question posed for consultation were so general (see below) that it did little to surface the pros and cons of a nuclear response or the alternatives - nor did it really take account of the 8 percent contribution that nuclear makes to primary energy and therefore that energy security and climate change rest on what happens with the other 92 percent (see chart / data from BP Energy Statistics]

It asked only the most general open-ended questions. These were:
Q.1. What more could the government do on the demand or supply side for energy to ensure that the UK’s long-term goal of reducing carbon emissions is met?

Q.2. With the UK becoming a net energy importer and with big investments to be made over the next twenty years in generating capacity and networks, what further steps, if any, should the government take to develop our market framework for delivering reliable energy supplies? In particular, we invite views on the implications of increased dependence on gas imports.

Q.3. The Energy White Paper left open the option of nuclear new build. Are there particular considerations that should apply to nuclear as the government reexamines the issues bearing on new build, including long-term liabilities and waste management? If so, what are these, and how should the government address them?

Q.4. Are there particular considerations that should apply to carbon abatement and other low-carbon technologies?

Q.5 What further steps should be taken towards meeting the government’s goals for ensuring that every home is adequately and affordably heated?
Which could have been shortened to "we're thinking of going nuclear, whaddya reckon?" On the basis of responses to this, the government was able to conclude in "The Energy Challenge":
Nuclear power is a source of low carbon generation which contributes to the diversity of our energy supplies. Under likely scenarios for gas and carbon prices, new nuclear power stations would yield economic benefits in terms of carbon reduction and security of supply. Government considers that nuclear has a role to play in the future UK generating mix alongside other low carbon generating options. Evidence gathered during the Energy Review and consultation supports this view.
But the consultation was undertaken before the completion of the CoRWM assessment of radioactive waste management, surely a crucial aspect of the future of nuclear, and with virtually no surfacing of options in detail or consideration of questions of proliferation and the dual use of civilian and military technologies and expertise.

The avoidance of a thorough consultation is all the more troubling given that the planning reforms proposed in the July 2006 green paper "The Energy Challenge" and the Nuclear Policy Framework to take nuclear power (and other major infrastructure) development decisions out of the local planning system. There are good reasons to do that, but all the more reason to have had a thorough and searching consultation to lend some legitimacy to the proposed reforms.

That the whole thing has had the feeling of a decision already taken from the outset was reinforced by statements made by the Prime Minister [see my May post and June post on the approach of the PM - it can' have helped to have been this committed in public in advance of the completion of the consultation].

That's a shame, because in my opinion the only people who are wrong about nuclear power in a climate changing world are those that are certain it is the right option, the wrong option or the only option. I think it's a really difficult call and deserves a really heavy duty discussion.


Ben A said...

A great result for Greenpeace yesterday after the Government dishonestly tried to strong arm us into backing a new phase of nuclear power stations, but I can’t quite get rid of this nagging feeling that the victory could be a little pyrrhic. Leaving aside Blair’s rather obtuse assertion that the decision “won't affect the policy at all," one thing that really struck me about the media’s response to the story was their seemingly unquestioning acceptance of his assumption that if our current nuclear power stations aren’t replaced then tackling climate change will be a pipe dream.

Truth be told, this is a somewhat delusive theory.

Even if the Government pushed ahead with new build (and it’s a big if – don’t forget there’s still the intractable problem of what to do with nuclear waste, the risks associated with civil / military nuclear proliferation, huge start-up / decommissioning costs, and not forgetting the current state of the British energy market), the construction of 10 new nuclear power stations would only cut C02 emissions by 4%, with the main delivery of a new build programme probably not arriving on-stream until around 2025. This certainly doesn’t strike me as a climate change panacea, but yesterday Blair and Alistair Darling got away with making it seem like nukes were the only real option we had.

I don’t believe this to be the case - alternatives to nuclear power do exist and they can make significant inroads into reducing our GHG emissions. Things like increasing energy efficiency and moving away from the current centralised energy generation system to a more localised one are all options we should be looking at very closely. This is the message the Government needs to be hearing, more than just the fact that Greenpeace have so successfully managed to throw a legal spanner into the works of the consultation. If they don’t hear this message loud enough, Labour’s apparatchiks could still get away with frightening us into a new nuclear future.

It’s going to be tough to push through these solutions, so in that sense the real work starts now. Either way, all power to the Greenpeace elbow – I’ve got a feeling that they propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer, as a famous soldier once said.

GerryWolff said...

Regarding "Court ruling good for both friends and foes of nuclear power" (2007-02-16), there is absolutely no need for nuclear power in the UK (or anywhere else in Europe) because there is a simple mature technology that can deliver huge amounts of clean energy without any of the headaches of nuclear power.

I refer to 'concentrating solar power' (CSP), the technique of concentrating sunlight using mirrors to create heat, and then using the heat to raise steam and drive turbines and generators, just like a conventional power station. It is possible to store solar heat in melted salts so that electricity generation may continue through the night or on cloudy days. This technology has been generating electricity successfully in California since 1985 and half a million Californians currently get their electricity from this source. CSP plants are now being planned or built in many parts of the world.

CSP works best in hot deserts and, of course, there are not many of these in Europe! But it is feasible and economic to transmit solar electricity over very long distances using highly-efficient 'HVDC' transmission lines. With transmission losses at about 3% per 1000 km, solar electricity may, for example, be transmitted from North Africa to London with only about 10% loss of power. A large-scale HVDC transmission grid has also been proposed by the wind energy company Airtricity as a means of optimising the use of wind power throughout Europe.

In the recent 'TRANS-CSP' report commissioned by the German government, it is estimated that CSP electricity, imported from North Africa and the Middle East, could become one of the cheapest sources of electricity in Europe, including the cost of transmission. That report shows in great detail how Europe can meet all its needs for electricity, make deep cuts in CO2 emissions, and phase out nuclear power at the same time.

Further information about CSP may be found at and . Copies of the TRANS-CSP report may be downloaded from . The many problems associated with nuclear power are summarised at .