A letter to David Cameron

Countering the letter sent to him by four former directors of Friends of the Earth.

From George Monbiot, Stephen Tindale, Fred Pearce, Michael Hanlon and Mark Lynas.

(See also George Monbiot in the Guardian: ‘Why I am urging David Cameron to act against Friends of the Earth‘)

By fax and email

15 March 2012

Dear Mr Cameron

We write because we believe you have been misled by four prominent environmentalists who contacted you recently about nuclear power. This quartet – Jonathon Porritt, Charles Secrett, Tom Burke and Tony Juniper – were all in the past directors of Friends of the Earth, an organisation which also put its official seal of approval on the letter sent by them to you on 12 March 2012.

We believe their advice to be wrong both in fact and interpretation, and feel that if you act on it without further consideration of the alternatives, you risk threatening both the energy security of the UK and our climate-change targets.

As writers and thinkers who are interested in and concerned with environmental issues, our job is to assess the technological and policy options on climate change as objectively as possible. Independently of each other, we have all reached the conclusion in recent years that the gravity of the climate crisis necessitates a re-examination of deeply-held objections still shared by many in the green movement towards nuclear power, including, until recently some of our own number. Needless to say, none of us has any financial or professional relationship with the nuclear industry whatsoever.

We find the 12 March letter objectionable on several counts. Firstly, we are disturbed by the jingoistic tone the authors adopt towards our closest neighbour and EU partner, France. The letter insinuates, and the accompanying press release states in its very first sentence, that having French companies involved in delivering a substantial portion of the UK’s energy supply is somehow a threat to our national security. We are sure you will agree that countries working together irrespective of nationalism must be the best way of tackling both climate change and energy security.

Secondly, and most importantly, we believe that abandoning nuclear new-build in the UK – as the authors propose we should do – would be a serious environmental mistake. The letter holds up Germany and Japan as models to be emulated, but the truth is that both countries are increasing their use of fossil fuels to cover their nuclear shortfall, and carbon emissions are rising accordingly and will continue to do so. From an environmental as well as a public health perspective, the most urgent priority is to phase out coal – an issue the authors of the letter neglect even to mention, let alone address. The risk of policy failure here is substantial – abandoning nuclear risks putting your government in breach of the Climate Change Act and thereby vulnerable to legal challenge.

Nuclear remains the only viable large-scale source of low-carbon baseload power available to energy consumers in the UK today. Whilst we enthusiastically support research into new technologies, the deployment of renewables, demand-management and efficiency, these combined cannot, without the help of atomic energy, power a modern energy-hungry economy at the same time as reducing carbon emissions.

For nuclear and renewables, as the Climate Change Committee has rightly pointed out in numerous reports, this is not an either-or choice; we need increasing deployments of both in the UK’s energy mix in the future (see appendix 1).

Thirdly, the 12 March letter focuses significantly on economics, in short, arguing that nuclear is too expensive. We would point out that even if this were true, the writers themselves would have helped make it so by devoting decades to campaigning against the technology during their tenures at Friends of the Earth. In addition, if anyone has yet invented an inexpensive low-carbon energy source, we have yet to hear about it – Friends of the Earth today campaigns vociferously in favour of the retention of the solar feed-in-tariff, which delivers perhaps the most expensive, unreliable and socially regressive electricity ever deployed anywhere. Once again, we would refer you to the Climate Change Committee, which found that nuclear was potentially the cheapest of all low-carbon options available by 2030 (appendix 2).

None of this is to suggest that we are uncritical supporters of EDF, Areva or the EPR reactors proposed for some UK new-build sites, or that nuclear power – like any energy source – does not embody risks. It is true that EPRs under construction in Finland and France have gone seriously over budget (although this is not the case for the same reactor designs being constructed in China), and it may well be that the Westinghouse AP1000 is a more promising option for British utilities.

Some of us have already written about the PRISM reactor offered by GE-Hitachi, a fourth-generation fast reactor design which can generate zero-carbon power by consuming our plutonium and spent fuel stockpiles, thereby tackling both the nuclear waste and climate problems simultaneously; it is currently under consideration by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority as a promising alternative to Areva’s MOX fuel for plutonium management. Tom Burke has already declared himself opposed to this new technology, we suspect before properly considering it.

Moreover, it is abundantly obvious that the authors of the 12 March letter to you are not against nuclear power because they think it is too expensive, but that they think it is too expensive because they are already against nuclear power. This reflexive ideological opposition, institutionalised by the NGOs which they have led and worked within over many decades, is clearly not a good basis for a truly sound and independent political analysis. All four additionally act as ambassadors for the renewables lobby, which we consider an interest group like any other. The job of a government is not to pander to any interest group, but to formulate policy on the basis of sound analysis based on empirical evidence rather than assertion.

Finally, we appreciate that you are now under considerable pressure from two different but equally vocal lobbies. One, consisting of those who deny that climate change is happening, urges you to abandon all support for low-carbon energy and instead to refocus on fossil fuels like coal and shale gas. The other, encompassing much of the orthodox green movement, insists that you should phase out nuclear and replace it with renewables and gas. Having examined the evidence and written extensively about it, we feel that both lobbies are wrong, and both stand to do equal harm to our efforts to tackle climate change and keep the country energy secure in future decades if they are allowed to have a significant influence on government policy. We note that both sides appear to be opposed but are actually united in supporting a permanent UK dependence on imported gas, which is of course a fossil fuel.

We urge you to stand firm in support of this country’s international and domestic commitments on climate change, and to continue working towards a regulatory enabling environment which will encourage all low-carbon energy options, in order to achieve this end.

Yours faithfully

George Monbiot, Stephen Tindale, Fred Pearce, Michael Hanlon, Mark Lynas

cc:           Edward Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change

George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer

Media

Appendix 1:

The Climate Change Committee states the following:

“It is clear that achieving sector decarbonisation will require significant investment in nuclear, wind and CCS. Trying to decarbonise without one or more of these options would raise costs and risks of meeting the carbon budget to which we are now legally committed. For example, taking nuclear out of the mix would result in increased investment in unabated gas fired generation and associated emissions above budgeted levels.”

http://www.theccc.org.uk/blog/categoty/nuclear/

The Committee also projects that the maximum likely contribution of renewables to our electricity supply (mainly via offshore wind) by 2030 is 45%, and the maximum likely contribution from carbon capture and storage is 15%. Unless nuclear power fills the gap, our national carbon targets will most likely therefore be unattainable. As Germany is currently discovering, replacing fossil fuels with renewables becomes doubly difficult if renewables also have to replace nuclear at the same time.

http://hmccc.s3.amazonaws.com/Renewables%20Review/The%20renewable%20energy%20review_Printout.pdf

Moreover, it is worrying that at the very end of their longer ‘briefing note’ about electricity market reform and new nuclear, the authors admit that their ill-defined vision of renewables deployment is actually entirely dependent on gas generation supply to cover the periods when the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining. This gas would supposedly be fitted with carbon capture and storage, a technology option which we note has yet to be deployed at any significant scale anywhere in the world in the electricity generation process. To put all our eggs in the CCS basket seems to us to be a near-certain recipe for climate change failure, and one which additionally leaves us permanently dependent on fossil fuels.

Appendix 2

We would refer here to the study conducted by Mott McDonald for the Climate Change Committee, published in 2011. Acknowldeging the uncertainties, with a discount rate of 7.5%, the 2030 levelised cost ranges vary from 4.0-7.5 p/kWh for nuclear to 7.5- 11.5 p/kWh for offshore wind, and 9.0-20.5 p/kWh for solar PV. Note that nuclear is the cheapest of all possible options, including unabated gas (with a carbon price) in the lower scenario. For comparison, gas is 5.0-13.5 p/kWh.

Source:

http://hmccc.s3.amazonaws.com/Renewables%20Review/MML%20final%20report%20for%20CCC%209%20may%202011.pdf

Appendix 3

Authors

George Monbiot, author and journalist.

Stephen Tindale, Associate Fellow, Centre for European Reform.

Fred Pearce, author and journalist.

Michael Hanlon, author and journalist.

Mark Lynas, author, journalist and Visiting Research Associate at Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment.

27 comments

  1. Dear Mark,

    With respect to this comment:

    “Whilst we enthusiastically support research into new technologies, the deployment of renewables, demand-management and efficiency, these combined cannot, without the help of atomic energy, power a modern energy-hungry economy at the same time as reducing carbon emissions.”

    Regardless of the merits of the case one way or the other around nuclear or CCS or any other technology, it is not the case that renewables CANNOT form all or nearly all of the European electricity grid by 2050.

    Different people, interests and governments may prefer and advocate the merits of one pathway over another, but it is not the case that Europe cannot deliver its electricity demand from renewable electricity if it so chooses.

    • mi2bobswrth says:

      Even if it were correct that Europe could satisfy all or most of its electricity demands by 2050 using renewables (and from all the reading i have done i dont believe it is possible) the cost of renewables would be totally unacceptable to the population at large. In any case why risk worsening climate change by gambling on the possiblity that renewables might work when there is already a proven and cheaper option, nuclear power. Nuclear power can simultaneously meet our future electricity demand and CO2 reduction with the added bonus of Gen 4 (e.g.IFR) power plants being able to consume existing nuclear waste and recycle its own waste leaving a negligable amount of waste to manage.

    • We have examined this issue very closely – along with industry (including nuclear). The all-in investment costs of building and operating a European electricity grid that is as reliable as today’s comprising 80% RES with 10% nuclear and 10% CCS compared to one of 40% RES (30% nuclear and 30% CCS) are about the same. A 100% RES scenario is c10% higher.

      These scenario costs are also around the same as the reference scenario. The underlying reason for this is that low carbon technology is higher capex, but lower opex. So what you pay more for in terms of capital investment you save on fossil fuels.

      40% RES is a pretty unlikely scenario for 2050 really. Europe will be at c35% RES in 2020 and it is still a set of technologies with good learning and scale-ability so it is very unlikely that RES will comprise less than 60% of European generation by 2050. What this all means is that whether you are for nuclear or against, it is still necessary to prepare for a high renewables electricity grid in Europe.

      Nuclear today is c30% or European supply. For it to retain that share in 2050 would require about 250 new nuclear plants to be built in Europe.

    • That is a bold statement. The fact is no individual or organisation advocating technosolar renewables has ever been able to put forward a credible, transparent plan to run any major industrial economy from them. All attempts to do so have had to leave out essential show-killing details which would expose those schemes as fraudulent.

    • I just re-read your comment and I think what you are saying is that largest scale RES deployment means you can not have a grid as reliable as today’s? Right?

      Your mind can be put at rest there, it is entirely possible to achieve a grid with high levels of RES that is as reliable as today’s. Our own analysis required that the network must meet that standard.

      But there are big challenges for large scale RES. The biggest of these is grid interconnection and smart grid (ie the ability to shift load). Both of these approaches dramatically reduce costs, but of course are not necessarily happening as it requires government co-operation and decisions.

      For nuclear I would say the challenge is really about industrial scale-ability in the timescale required and economic inflexibility in a high-RES grid.

    • No Matt, my mind is not at rest just on your say so. Prove your claims, if such proof exists. Point to the studies which back you up, ones full of numbers to be checked, and with all assumptions laid out for criticism. Also, your criticism of nuclear as ‘inflexible’ makes no sense. Nuclear is there pretty much whenever you need it, and as fossil fuels are abandoned or exhausted, it will be necessary for baseload power to massively expand to cover things like hydrogen production for Haber-Bosh, water desal, aluminium refining, synthetic fuel production, and no doubt other functions as well. The proportion of consumption that fluctuates on a diurnal cycle will eventually diminish to the extent that against the large new baseload demand, the daily variability will only be a few percent, easily accommodated by even today’s nuclear plants. Nuclear is the perfect fit for the post fossil fuel grid as it will stand in reality. The experience of France during the 70s and 80s demonstrates that nuclear can be implimented on the required timescales without severe evonomic strains.

    • I tried to paste the link before but it did not get posted. Nevertheless the same link is connected to my name and so you can scrutinise the analysis and all its assumptions at your convenience.

    • On the ‘baseload’ point my observation was that nuclear is economically inflexible. The very high capex of nuclear means it is characterised by needing to run at very high load factors in order to amortise costs. This makes life hard for nuclear in a market with high RES – especially wind or solar – which are cheaper than nuclear in short run terms and so are ‘dispatched’ before nuclear on the market.

      But your wider point (if I understand it correctly) was about the specific function of ‘baseload’ on a market. As I said to you, our analysis made a grid as reliable as today’s a requirement.

      Your observation that France – and indeed many other countries – built nuclear plants in the past is observably true. It is also observably true that Europe has not built many nuclear plants in the last decade, whereas it has built renewables (principally) plus gas. For instance in 2011 71% of capacity addition in Europe was renewables, 22% CCGT (numbers assembled in recent EWEA report). So the challenge for nuclear would be to deliver industrially today in Europe.

      As I say I am taking no view on whether a high, low or no nuclear pathway is right or wrong, I am only saying that the statement that RES CANNOT comprise all or nearly all of a European electricity grid in 2050 is not correct.

  2. Be Green says:

    Most excellent letter. Nuclear power should certainly be kept on the table for discussion as an alternative energy source for the UK and elsewhere.

    Please provide a follow up letting us know if Mr. Cameron replies.

  3. bristolchick says:

    In Australia a similar shift is in the air. Several high profile environmentalists have reached the same conclusion regarding nuclear power. One of these is Professor Barry Brook who holds the Chair of Climate Change at Adelaide University. His popular blog http://www.bravenewclimate.com provides much information on new IFR nuclear power, including costings and technical information. Renewable power sources, radiation phobias and climate change are also discussed on the blog. He has had over three million hits and his followers are growing fast. It took me from stridently anti-nuclear to a firm advocate.

  4. Your letter is contradicting itself.

    On the one hand you write: “Whilst we enthusiastically support research into new technologies, the deployment of renewables, (…)”

    But then you go on with “Friends of the Earth today campaigns vociferously in favour of the retention of the solar feed-in-tariff, which delivers perhaps the most expensive, unreliable and socially regressive electricity ever deployed anywhere.”

    I may be wrong, but that latter statement does not impress me as “enthusiastic support”. I would rather call it throwing a pie into the face of the UK solar industry, quite similar to your recent “Can solar PV really power the UK?” post.

    You are of course free to oppose renewable energy all day long, though I don’t think that will help you get any new friends for nuclear power. But please don’t pretend to “enthusiastically support” it at the same time.

  5. Fun facts about use of fossil fuels in Germany (generated TWh):

    Coal in 2011: down to 114.5 from 117 in 2010

    Gas in 2011: down to 84 from 86.8 in 2010

    Oil in 2011: down to 7 from 8.4 in 2010

    Total downward movement 6.7 TWh.

    Brown coal in 2011: 153, up from 145.9 in 2010.

    Total upward movement 7.1 TWh, for a total increase of 0.4 TWh at generation of 614.5 TWh for all sources.

    That leaves your statement “increasing use of fossil fuel” – barely – correct, though coal, gas, and oil have all gone down.

    • How much of Germany’s consumption has been supplied by foreign nuclear? The whole picture must be seen to make a meaningful determination. There is also talk of moving energy-intensive industry out of Germany. Has this happened yet, and if so, what has been its impact on energy consumption?

    • Robert Wilson says:

      Karl

      Can you please provide a web-link for your numbers? By selectively reporting figures without providing a source you are not exactly setting up the conditions for an informed discussion.

      You also need to include the figures for nuclear, which after all is the electricity source we are discussing here.

  6. Link to figures available (with some more analysis) at

    http://k.lenz.name/LB/?p=6470.

    Nuclear is down to 108 in 2011, from 140.5 in 2010, and 171.3 at its peak in 2001.

    Consumption is down to 608.5 from 610.4.

    Germany has exported 6 TWh on balance in 2011, down from 17.7 in 2010.

  7. Robert Wilson says:

    Karl

    Do you not believe we should estimate what fossil fuel use would have been if nuclear had stayed the same?

    Are those 32 TWh simply disappearing or are they coming from fossil fuels?

    • Production was 13.6 less, and renewable energy contributed 19.2 more.

      One might try such an estimate. But the open letter above did not do that, but asserted that Germany has increased the use of fossil fuel, which was the object of my fact-checking here.

    • Robert Wilson says:

      Karl

      The argument put forward by the authors in the letter and elsewhere is that fossil use is higher than if the nuclear policy had stayed the same. Unless you are going to argue with me about the rules of arithmetic, your numbers can only be interpreted as backing up their argument.

      Do you believe that the reduced use of nuclear did not result in higher fossil fuel use or increased emissions? Your numbers say one thing, but you seem to be saying something else.

    • English is not my first language, so I may be wrong in my interpretation. But when I read “increase” I understand “increase”, not “failed to achieve a reduction”.

    • Robert Wilson says:

      Karl,

      The fundamental question is what fossil fuel use would have been had the 13.2 TWh reduction in nuclear not occurred. It seems obvious that fossil fuel use would have been lower if the 13.2 TWh reduction had not happened. However, I am open to hearing an explanation of why this is not the case.

  8. Adam says:

    “This reflexive ideological opposition, institutionalised by the NGOs which they have led and worked within over many decades, is clearly not a good basis for a truly sound and independent political analysis. All four additionally act as ambassadors for the renewables lobby, which we consider an interest group like any other. The job of a government is not to pander to any interest group, but to formulate policy on the basis of sound analysis based on empirical evidence rather than assertion.”

    Well done Mark (and co-authors), very well written and argued. Keep it up!

  9. In reply to Robert Wilson above:

    Nuclear was down 32.5 TWh in 2011, not 13.2.

    What you say is the “fundamental question” is not what the open letter addressed. Or, the other way round, if Mark Lynas wanted to be not only barely right, he should have written something like “Germany has failed to reduce use of fossil fuel”.

    If you want to estimate the amount of that potential reduction, a simple method would be to look at the relation between fossil fuel use and renewable, which is about 3 to 1. That probably means that 32.2 TWh nuclear remaining would have reduced fossil fuel use by around 24 TWh, or about 4% of production (614.5).

    I would also like to point out that this data is sourced from Arbeitsgemeinschaft Energiebilanzen, a leading provider of statistical data in Germany. I updated my blog post linked above to reflect that fact.

  10. Robert Wilson says:

    Karl

    Sorry for the typo.

    The main argument by the authors of the letter is that carbon emissions will be higher if we abandon nuclear energy than if we do not abandon nuclear power.

    Your back of the envelope estimate suggests fossil fuel use was about 4% higher than it would have been if nuclear plants had not been shut down. I don’t think George Monbiot, Mark Lynas or the other authors would look at this as evidence the shut down had been good for emissions.

  11. Hector Balint says:

    Nuclear is not expensive but if it was it would be the fault of Friends of the Earth…. probably wasting your breath on this level of rhetoric… the government knows that it has not been possible for anybody to build a nuclear power plant and make a profit. The greens provide a handy aliby for this inconvenient truth as regards Joe Public but the big investors are conversant with the historical facts. Nuclear communism no problem but making it pay in a free market is going to take some ingenuity.

  12. Paul Brune says:

    The real question is what credibility do all these self promoting PR seeking journalists have, like Lynas and Monbiot? Do they have scientific logical working brain or are they just writers that like to see their own text in books? (make a buck) Age of stupidity is truly now, so is this stupid talking to stupid?

    The truth is deeper than this, surely. The biggest point here is that the nuclear industry already failed to deliver. The history can explain why (mainly it was a military enterprise) but that does not mean we should give industry another chance and several billions (10^12) EUR as there are cheaper and mostly better ways to un-coal civilisation.

  13. Wes Oliver says:

    _-In Response to this
    “The real question is what credibility do all these self promoting PR seeking journalists have, like Lynas and Monbiot? ”

    I am an University of Arizona Undergrad and had the pleasure of hearing Lynas talk during his lecture, “Living withing planetary boundaries:How should the “God Species” respond to global environmental change?”. After he lectured to our department (regional development), a large amount of my professors were concerned with his arguments and recommendations, things including geoengineering(Spraying chemicals into the atmosphere to create clouds that reflect heat) and his support of GMO’s (He denied and basically refused to acknowledge the criticisms on the loss of biodiversity and who they actually benefit), and lastly many questions on this exact nuclear debate that simply went over my head. in conclusion when asked why he had such strong beliefs in many of these theories when he did not fully understand the science he admitted, That he is looking at these issues first as a historian and not a scientist and that much of his beliefs were based on “faith” and optimism. While much of the debates in these matters I simply do not understand, i was discouraged to learn that his arguments may simply be based on “faith” and an UN-scientifc approach where he MAY not understand all the factors that go into the issues he is talking about.

    DISCLAIMER: I have not read his latest works and have limited knowledge on these subjects but when asked about his credibility this was an issue in the lecture that i and many of my professors noticed

  14. Robert Wilson says:

    Wes

    Can you point to any peer reviewed research indicating a loss of biodiversity resulting from GMO based agriculture?

    The research I am aware of (in particular the National Academy of Science’s review of GM agriculture) indicates an increase in yields and decrease in pesticide use, which should be good for biodiversity. However, if you aware of field based studies indicating a loss of biodiversity as a result of switching to GM agriculture I would be interested in reading about them.

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