Why nuclear?

Nuclear energy brings a lot of problems but it is a necessary part of the fight against climate change


I recently did a webinar about the planned new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point in Somerset, based on part of my forthcoming book The Fall and Rise of Nuclear Power in Britain – A history which will be published in early March 2016. The book reflects my attitude – I’m curious about the intersection of economics, politics and technology where nuclear policy lies. But I’m not inherently for or against nuclear power.

Policy is an inevitable compromise in achieving safe, reliable and affordable energy. Nuclear is relatively expensive because of the very high cost of making it safe. It also generates very toxic waste that will last for centuries (though there may be technical solutions to dealing with it one day). It has had accidents that have killed and hurt people, though far fewer than most other energy sources.

But it burns no carbon. Using oil, gas and coal releases carbon – but they are relatively cheap. Coal is a worldwide killer of millions of people through local pollution. Solar and wind are getting cheaper but they are still expensive when you factor in the necessary backup capacity to fill the gaps at night or when the wind doesn’t blow (and that backup is currently usually gas-burning). In the UK most people dislike wind turbines and the high voltage cables necessary to transfer the energy they generate, so we now build them offshore, at much greater cost . Hydroelectricity produces zero carbon and flexible power but it uses up land, displaces people and can have damaging long term consequences for ecosystems (*). Rarely, dams collapse and kill thousands of people

So energy policy is about compromises. It’s hard to like nuclear power, but it might have a role to play in this imperfect mix of options.

I polled the participants at the start of the seminar to see if they were broadly supportive or opposed to nuclear power or didn’t know. I polled them again at the end. The results were as shown here:

Nuclear poll 071215

It’s not surprising that most participants were in favour of nuclear as that’s the sort of person more likely to be interested in the topic in the first place. But by the end of my presentation and questions and answers the proportion of “not sure” had fallen, with roughly equal amounts going to “support” and “opposed”. So the effect of my talk seems to have been to have clarified the issue enough for people to be more sure what they thought, but not to have systematically become any more or less likely to support nuclear.

I’m pleased with this (statistically not very significant) result as it suggest little unconscious bias on my part. But for for the record, my answer to the question, is nuclear best kept in the global electricity mix, is yes. It is, in my view, the lesser evil.

Climate change trumps all other risks

The world faces a truly frightening prospect of climate change. There is a lot of uncertainty about the scale and speed with which rising greenhouse gas emissions are likely to change the planet’s climate. Unfortunately that uncertainty is asymmetric. The small chance of little or no effects is not equally balanced by the (probably) small chance of extreme effects. If by some miracle nothing happens then the worst that follows is that we may have wasted some resources by investing in more expensive energy sources.

But if the bad extremes happen we may have a sea level 70 metres above current levels and the world’s population may shrink dramatically with incalculable costs. The very long lags in the system mean that even if we halted all carbon dioxide emissions now we could still face climate change for some centuries to come; we may already have triggered the irreversible melting of Antarctic ice. It’s unlikely that new technology will be able to fix that sort of problem.

More optimistically, we still have time to avoid the more costly scenarios. By this I mean, not the catastrophic ones, merely the case where most of the world’s cities (which are on the coast) are underwater and large parts of the world become uninhabitable. That’s quite likely to happen on the 3-4 degree rise that we are currently on track for.

While immediate threats like terrorism get political and press attention, even though they are quite similar to previous threats with which we have, regrettably, had to cope before, the long slow burn of climate change doesn’t motivate the necessary sense of urgency. Terrorism is horrible, frightening – and utterly trivial in comparison with climate change. Indeed the two are likely to be linked, in so far as deteriorating environments worsen competition for scarce resources and induce despair that nurtures extremism.

We don’t really know how to defeat terrorism and to some extent we may have to learn to live with it, as the UK (Irish republicans), Germany (Baader-Meinhof/RAF) and France (post-Algerian war) have done in the past. We do know how to combat climate change – we need to procure zero carbon energy.

Why UK energy policy includes nuclear

The UK’s route to doing that is to switch as much energy usage as possible to electricity, then decarbonise the electricity. That’s not going to do the whole trick because it’s not efficient to replace all heating with electricity and some kinds of transport (aircraft, heavy trucks) are probably not workable with electricity. But it could make a very big dent in UK carbon emissions. But of course we have to decarbonise the increased supply of electricity.

The mix will include renewables, mainly wind, but the obvious problem is that wind is intermittent (or if you prefer, unreliable). Offshore wind, which is where most new capacity will come from, operates at about 30-35% peak power. There are many days in the UK when it’s grey (so you don’t get much solar either) and still (so, no wind). We therefore need a supply of energy that is continuous and reliable. Currently only nuclear energy meets that need without carbon emissions.

In a crowded island like the UK, nuclear also has the benefit of high energy density. Supplying most of the UK’s energy from wind would require covering an area the size of Wales with wind farms.

If, or rather when (it’s such a massive economic prize), we crack the problem of efficient storage of electricity, then intermittent energy such as wind and solar could provide the bulk of electricity supply. I’m hopeful that a large increase in energy research and development (the most glaringly missing part of  current climate change policy) will produce reliable, zero carbon and cheap power later in this century. Nuclear might then become obsolete, though the existing stations may continue to operate for decades as their main costs will have become sunk.

But until then, nuclear energy is the lesser evil – a source of proven, reliable low carbon energy that buys us time to find a better long term option.

(*) An entertaining BBC documentary Power to the People recently showed that the British utility SSE employs an ecologist to monitor the effects of hydroelectric dams in Scotland on the migration of spawning salmon. The dams are built with side routes for the fish to swim up and down stream but they don’t always work that well. So the ecologist scoops the fish out upstream and transports them downstream of the dam in a truck, a sort of taxi service for salmon.

One Response to Why nuclear?

  1. Simon, this a very good summary of the situation from a UK perspective. Thank you. You are obviously correct that (i) all sources of energy available to us presently are imperfect for different reasons and (ii) the risks of harm from climate change, real and growing, outweigh other types. You explain the UK approach succinctly, and say that energy R&D spend needs to increase significantly.

    Two other areas where I think we need to act are (a) carbon capture R&D – to help us begin to clean the air while we continue burning fossil fuels – and (b) making ever tougher the energy efficiency demands set on buildings, factories, vehicle engines etc., i.e. regulation. (Also, as an island country with abundant coastline, I wonder why we do not invest more in tidal energy research. Unlike sunshine and wind, tides are predictable and so should be the energy that can be drawn from them.)

    While oil, gas and coal prices remain low – and the producers/suppliers of these fuels lack/lose market power due to the advent of shale etc., the net consumers/buyers of energy will lack incentives to invest sufficiently in the various components of the solution needed to take us to a decarbonised future. In other words, it appears to me that there is no alternative to policy intervention where (price-driven) market forces alone will not advance our well-being. Certainly not in the time scale demanded by the projections of temperature rise. The issue then becomes one of how to create the political pressure that leads to sensible decisions for the long term, rather than the avoiding of them.

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