The New Nuclear Debate

March 13, 2012

Four former directors of Friends of the Earth, Jonathon Porritt, Tony Juniper, Charles Secrett and Tom Burke, have written to the Prime Minister urging him to halt Britain’s nuclear power programme. We’ve heard anti-nuclear protests from the environment lobby for years, but this letter and the accompanying document make a number of strong commercial points.

The first problem is that with no new nuclear power stations in Britain for a generation there are no British suppliers. The proposed new stations will be built by EDF (Électricité de France), possibly with a minority involvement of Centrica. EDF is 85% owned by the French government. If Francois Hollande becomes president of France in May the government’s policy towards nuclear may change, especially if he has to rely on the Greens for support. Ultimately it could be the French Greens who will control British nuclear policy.

Secondly, if EDF is the only supplier it will be able to dictate its own terms. No financial support will come from the French government; everything will have to be underwritten by the British taxpayer or the British electricity consumer. No nuclear power station has yet been built without government (taxpayer) subsidy.

Thirdly, the proposed reactor design is the EPR (European Pressurised Reactor), which has been rejected by the French. The two EPRs currently under construction are already four years late and 100% over budget.

Finally, the four reactors which EDF has built since 1990 have taken an average of 17.5 years to deliver power to the grid. Analysts are warning that we will have an energy shortfall in the UK by the middle of this decade – within 3 to 5 years – so nuclear can do nothing to solve that.

The authors make a number of other points, including the over-centralisation of the energy market by the emphasis on nuclear, the difficulty of raising finance for such an enormous project in the present economic climate and the risks demonstrated by the Fukushima disaster. Importantly, they reject predictions of an energy gap in the short and medium term, stating that Centrica and others are currently mothballing gas-fired power stations because of lack of demand.

There is no doubt that many UK power stations are coming to the end of their useful lives and will have to be closed within the next decade. Oldbury closed today. This capacity must be replaced, but the letter offers few solutions. It suggests we use gas and mitigate emissions with carbon capture and storage. It suggests we use more renewables and do more to save energy. Sadly renewables have an awful long way to go to deliver a significant proportion of UK electricity (around 7% in 2010), and energy saving in this country seems to involve little more than lip service, assaulted by the CBI who want to abolish the Carbon Reduction Commitment and the airlines who want to avoid the EU Emissions Trading Scheme.

Up to now I have been a supporter of nuclear power as a least worst option. Whatever people say, it is in fact the safest source of power. (Yes, do the research.) However, the arguments brought forward today bring a whole new perspective. If we cannot be sure of the costs, if we cannot be sure of the technology and we cannot be sure how soon we can have new stations in operation then surely we need to look elsewhere.

The best outcome from this letter would be to start a national debate and inform people of the choices and why we need to use energy more wisely. No response from DECC so far.

Full text of letter