In defence of nuclear power

Yesterday I wrote a post in defence of offshore wind. Today I feel compelled to write in defence of nuclear power. I do not see any contradiction here – both are major climate mitigation options that can play a substantial role in decarbonising the UK economy. Ironically, however, today’s attack on nuclear comes from environmentalists, many of whom have devoted years of their lives to raising awareness of the threat from climate change and seem unable to appreciate the harm they are currently doing.

At issue is a press release I received this morning via email entitled ‘Lawyers send complaint to the European Commission about subsidies for nuclear power’. I cannot find it online to add a link, but earlier material from the group responsible, an outfit called ‘Energy Fair’, may be found here. The release begins:

A formal complaint about subsidies for nuclear power has been sent to the European Commission. If it is upheld, it unlikely that any new nuclear power stations will be built in the UK or elsewhere in the EU. The complaint may be followed by legal action in the courts or actions by politicians to reduce or remove subsidies for nuclear power.

It further alleges that nuclear operators are not “properly insured”, and that

if nuclear operators were fully insured against the cost of nuclear disasters like those at Chernobyl and Fukushima, the price of nuclear electricity would rise by at least 14 Eurocents per kWh and perhaps as much as 2.36 Euros, depending on assumptions made. Even with the minimum increase, nuclear electricity would become quite uncompetitive.

At this point, you may be wondering – like I was – who Energy Fair actually is, and who might be behind this legal challenge. The press release states that

Lawyer Dr Dörte Fouquet, with a lawyer colleague, has prepared the formal complaint to the European Commission on behalf of Energy Fair and other environmental groups and environmentalists

and (with admirable openness) reveals that Dr Fouquet is actually Director of the European Renewable Energies Federation, whilst others of the supporters also have commercial interests in the renewables sector. These include Jeremy Leggett from the company SolarCentury, whilst the originator of the press release, a Dr Gerry Wolff, is involved in the Desertec solar initiative in North Africa.

In other words, what Energy Fair seems to represent is an effort from one heavily-subsidised industry to attack presumed subsidies in another – hardly very ‘fair’. It is disappointing that members of what I call the ‘Green orthodox church’ (those of a certain age who have never had an open mind on nuclear and never will, like Leggett, Jonathon Porritt and Tom Burke) have joined this effort despite the unacknowledged commercial conflict of interest. And it is particularly disappointing to see Friends of the Earth also on the list, and to see Mike Childs from FoE quoted at length in the press release.

All this is especially depressing given the reality of the figures, which is that nuclear provides the vast majority of the UK’s current low-carbon electricity – as much as 70% according to the Nuclear Industry Association, whilst avoiding the emission of 40 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. This is why I want to see more nuclear power in the UK and elsewhere, in order to avoid more carbon emissions, and I cannot understand the reasoning of those who claim to work for the good of the climate but put so much effort into opposing the primary existing source of low-carbon electricity.

As George Monbiot aptly puts it in an email to me today in response:

The efforts some people will make to destroy a low-carbon technology are remarkable. We are facing perhaps the greatest crisis humanity has ever encountered – runaway climate change – and instead of tackling the source of the problem (fossil fuels), environmentalists are attacking one of the solutions. People will look back on this era and wonder how such madness took hold.

Having said all this, in my opinion there is some truth to the charge that currently nuclear sites are not subject to sufficient insurance cover – the cap prescribed in the 1965 Nuclear Installations Act (as amended) is only £140 million per plant, hardly enough for a major accident. This is in fact recognised by the UK government, which is proposing a seven-fold increase to 1.2 billion euro liability per site. The Secretary of State Chris Huhne is quoted in a January 2011 press release saying:

“The government is determined to provide certainty to low carbon investors, but there will be no public subsidy for nuclear power which is a mature technology. We are taking steps to reduce any risk of the taxpayer having to pick up the tab for new nuclear further down the track. We’ve already set out how operators will be required to put aside money from day one for their eventual clean up and waste storage, and now we’re increasing substantially the liability to be taken on by operators.”

Regarding the international situation, there is useful information on the World Nuclear Association’s ‘Liability for Nuclear Damage‘ page. It is certainly not true – as anti-nuclear activists often allege – that nuclear is completely uninsured or uninsurable. But as the Fukushima accident showed, when accidents do occur they can entrain enormous liabilities – of the sort that governments normally cover as insurers of last resort (like the recent bank bailouts, in the interests of the wider economy). I do not see why nuclear should be forced to assume more liability than any other industry causing third-party risk – such as the chemicals industry (think Bhopal), gas industry or the aviation industry (think 9/11) – but the nuclear industry should certainly be required to cover its liabilities as much as any other.

To finish, the current situation in the UK was summarised by energy minister Charles Hendry in a recent Parliamentary answer (scroll down to ‘Nuclear Power Stations: Accidents’) – the increase in liability has not yet been brought into law, but is likely to be soon. However, the issue of liability is governed by international agreements, so cannot be seen in isolation in any one country. I can’t claim to have done the figures, but I strongly doubt the accuracy of Energy Fair’s assertion that properly-insured nuclear would be too expensive to build. This sounds like more anti-nuclear propaganda to me – as time will surely tell.

© Mark Lynas
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