Inside track

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.