UK energy policy is still weighed down by the nuclear dream

This post is by Jonathon Porritt, founder director of Forum for the Future.

In March 2012, four former directors of Friends of the Earth (myself, Tom Burke, Charles Secrett and Tony Juniper) wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron to warn him that the pro-nuclear bias of his advisers across government posed a significant risk to the government’s ability to fashion a coherent energy policy.

We were concerned at that time that this bias was distorting views on what was known then as the ‘energy trilemma’: availability (as in security of supply); affordability (unlike this government, David Cameron’s at least professed to care about fuel poverty); and decarbonisation. We invited him to acknowledge that the costs of his pro-nuclear policy were already significant and would escalate over time, whereas the benefits were intangible, remote and would almost certainly prove illusory. As we said: “Viable options are available to meet our energy and climate security needs at much lower economic and political risk, and will create predominantly British jobs and growth.”

It’s depressing how much of the counter-briefing that we provided him with at that time would be as relevant for Boris Johnson today as it was, nine years ago, for David Cameron. That pro-nuclear bias was epitomised in the advice of Sir David MacKay, DECC’s chief scientific adviser between 2009 and 2014. Just before his untimely death in 2016, he described the suggestion that solar, wind and other renewables (combined with effective storage technologies) could power the UK’s electricity needs as “an appalling delusion”, forcefully recommending that the government should double down on both nuclear power and carbon capture and storage. Just five years later, in 2021, renewable energy is already providing more than 40 per cent of the UK’s electricity supply. On the recent Bank Holiday, wind power alone provided an astonishing 48.4 per cent of the UK’s electricity.

There’s an absence of joined up thinking
This is not the only area where ‘incoherence’ remains the politest available description of policy making in BEIS and the Treasury. In September last year, Green Alliance issued a compelling summary of ten years’ worth of lobbying for joined up thinking on fiscal measures to promote energy efficiency in the built environment. The message in Added value: improving the environmental and social Impact of UK VAT can be paraphrased along the lines of: “This is not difficult – sort it”. This message has been robustly reaffirmed in the report from the Public Accounts Committee a few weeks ago criticising Treasury’s continuing disinterest in the “climate storm breaking all around us”.

There’s a deeper problem at work here. As recently as 2010, the incoming coalition government was scaremongering about “a potential doubling, even tripling, of electricity consumption by 2050”, even though it was already falling at that time. As the indefatigable Andrew Warren, chair of the British Energy Efficiency Federation, continues to point out:

“Throughout this century, primary energy consumption in the UK has been falling. And falling. And falling. It is now over 20% lower than it was in 2000. In the case of the main heating fuel, natural gas, the impact has been even more pronounced. Sales have dropped by approaching one third. Largely due to better insulation and more efficient boilers and heating systems.”

And that’s without the government making any serious effort to reduce energy consumption, as seen in the calamitous failure of its ill-fated Green Homes Grant earlier this year. Is it any wonder, against such a backdrop, that the nuclear industry continues so aggressively to assert its potential role in tomorrow’s net zero world? That it can seduce the ever suggestible Boris Johnson, that its latest nuclear wishlist (just one more heave, please, on another big reactor at Sizewell C; then hundreds of millions of pounds, please, to get those mythical Small Modular Reactors up and running; backed up by some even more speculative punts on Advanced Nuclear Reactors; and let’s not forget fusion while we’re at it) should feature so prominently in his ten point plan last year.

Using nuclear power still doesn’t make sense
It was this hopelessly inadequate articulation of future energy policy that persuaded me to revisit the case for nuclear power, to see if it makes any more sense now than it did back in March 2012. It doesn’t.

Indeed, many of the inherent problems about nuclear power (getting more and more expensive every year, ever greater construction delays, still no answers on nuclear waste, security problems, both physical and cyber, proliferation risks and so on) are more pronounced now than they’ve ever been.

This pro-nuclear bias is not just an historical aberration; it is arguably the principal reason why we haven’t a hope in hell of achieving the government’s new target of a 78 per cent reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases by 2035. The opportunity costs of keeping these nuclear dreams alive intensify every year, distracting us so damagingly from what we know we have to do: double down on renewables, bring energy efficiency right up the agenda of every sector of the economy, invest in storage and smart grid technologies, get serious about the 2030 target for banning the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles, and crack the heat conundrum by building the kind of supply chain that will ensure the installation not just of 600,000 heat pumps every year (the government’s target) but millions.

It’s all there: we can do this. But not if we’re still weighed down by today’s moribund nuclear industry.

7 comments

  • Not exactly sure what the argument is here. Continued electrification of the UK especially via electric cars, metro transit systems and the electrification of the rail system will require considerably more electricity as well as an increase in fossil fuel use to upscale and manufacture a post carbon infrastructure.

    At the same time, the energy cost of energy or the energy return on investment is increasing or decreasing respectively which will feed into production costs.

    https://surplusenergyeconomics.wordpress.com/2021/05/05/197-life-after-ideology/comment-page-1/?unapproved=24837&moderation-hash=bb4f2de9b7138c02c63335c7d0c4cda1#comment-24837

    https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921800921000811?via%3Dihub

    Thus the energy trilemma of availability (energy security), affordability (energy cost) and decarbonisation (energy pollution) is accompanied by efficiency (energy surplus) with the latter determining the availability, affordability and decarbonisation of the net energy for generalised material prosperity.

    As long as environmentalists and political ecologists fail to appreciate that the economy is predominantly driven by energy not money, then the energy quadrilemma will fail to get the attention it deserves.

  • Pingback: UK energy policy is still weighed down by the nuclear dream — Inside track « Antinuclear

  • Completely agree. Every Euro country that has gone into nuke power has the most expensive domestic bills.
    As for EDF contracted to build H.Point and SZC then the latter will never be finished, no incentive with us paying ,and the former will never run as too many glitches.

  • Pingback: UK energy policy is still weighed down by the nuclear dream « nuclear-news

  • This article is simplistic in that it fails to account for the truly unprecedented economic conditions that we have lived through over the past decade. Never before in history have interest rates been effectively zero and they have been maintained that way for over a decade. It would have been unthinkable before the global financial crisis and it has turned the economics of investment upside down.

    McKay drew an obvious conclusion – the low power density of most renewable energy sources make them unsustainable, because of the enormous amounts of embodied energy and materials that must be invested in renewable infrastructure compared to fossil or nuclear plants with the same net power output. For wind power, total required investment of steel is roughly an order of magnitude greater than that required for the same average MWe from light water reactors. For solar power, the difference is two orders of magnitude. Neither estimate says anything about the required materials budget for energy storage. McKay’s conclusion would have been obvious to anyone with the figures in front of them. Neither wind nor solar power are sustainable as industrial sources of power in a world in which surplus energy is shrinking. It takes impressive powers of self-delusion to convince oneself that a world of shrinking surplus energy from fossil fuels can sustainability transition to an energy base in which embodied energy is 1-2 orders of magnitude greater.

    What McKay failed to account for was the effect that very low interest rates would have on renewable energy investments. When interest rates are beneath inflation, a manufacturer can sell a product at or beneath cost and still make money by doing so, because debt degrades due to inflation faster than interest can accumulate. Provided that the company sales are increasing, they can continue borrowing against future income streams, even though their debt appears to be ballooning on paper. The real capital costs of the project no longer impact the price of power in the way that they would have done back when interest rates were 5%. Projects that would have been impossible in ordinary interest rate environments, become temporarily feasible when interest rates drop beneath inflation. This is how tight oil companies in the US have managed to produce huge amounts of oil from resources that would never have been profitable before 2008. Notice that almost all of the UK’s wind and solar power capacity was installed during a period of near zero interest rates.

    The problem with perpetual low interest rates is that they effectively steal from the future. Pensions twenty years hence will be pitifully small as funds will have remained static and inflation will have eaten their value. I suspect that David McKay will ultimately be proven correct. When interest rates eventually rise above inflation, as they eventually must, the high capital costs of wind and solar power will be apparent once again. Very little has changed in the way these technologies work that will alter their fundamental profitability when interest rates return to positive values corrected for inflation. We are likely to find that the dash for renewable energy, like the dash for gas before it, was a diversion into a dead end.

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