The Scientific Alliance Newsletter - Changing and informed scientific debate

16th March 2012


Energy nationalism
UK nuclear plans ‘put energy in French hands’, according to the headline of a story from the BBC’s Richard Black. This reports a letter to the prime minister from a band of well-known environmentalists – Jonathan Porritt, Tom Burke, Charles Secrett and Tony Juniper, all former Friends of the Earth directors.

Their argument is that current government policy on nuclear new build will make the UK entirely dependent on two French companies: EDF, which would own and operate the power stations and Areva, the reactor builder. The French government has a majority stake in both companies.

According to this view, not only would the actual construction of the eight planned new reactors be vulnerable to business problems or changes of priorities by these two companies, but guaranteed prices to be paid for nuclear electricity would be for the benefit of foreign-owned firms. To quote Charles Secrett, "How on Earth can the prime minister justify paying billions of pounds of subsidy to French power companies when the chancellor is slashing welfare budgets for poor people in Britain and there are a million young people unemployed?"

Emotive stuff, but then the authors are ideologically opposed to nuclear as a significant part of the UK’s future generating mix. Naturally, they use whatever arguments which are at their disposal, but the fact is that they are not unique to one form of generation. For a start, privatisation of the UK’s energy market (and other utilities, for that matter) has lead to a large amount of inward investment from continental European companies.

EDF, for example, acquired existing electricity companies in London and southern England a decade ago, and in 2009 took over British Energy, owner of the existing nuclear generating stations. This makes it the largest generator of electricity in the UK (it also supplies gas). However, it has since sold its distribution business to UK Power Networks, itself owned by the Hong Kong-based Cheung Kong Group. Another major generator and distributor is the Midlands-based E.ON UK, owned by E.ON AG in Germany and previously known as Powergen.

Not all generators are foreign-owned, of course. Drax is the largest single generating plant in the UK and is run by a public company. Similarly, Scottish and Southern Energy owns and operates the hydro power plants in Scotland and a number of coal- and gas-fired plants across the UK.

All these companies also have interests in renewables, whether through co-firing (particularly for Drax), Combined Heat and Power plants, or wind farms. And it is clear that these interests would be minimal without public subsidy, so Charles Secrett’s heartfelt criticism of French-owned nuclear power plants applies across the board, to all generators who are using taxpayers’ money to make renewable energy viable. Whether this is for the benefit of French, Germany or UK shareholders is irrelevant; the net result is higher bills.

Nuclear reactors and wind turbines are very different beasts. In both cases, the major cost is the capital to build them in the first place. The cost of uranium fuel rods is tiny in comparison and, as we are so often reminded, wind is free. Nuclear stations, though, have a much longer life, being capable of operating for up to 60 years, compared to the 15-20 for wind turbines. In other words, three generations of wind farms would need to be installed during the life of a single nuclear station. The concrete bases could possibly be reused, but the entire turbine structure would have to be built from scratch.

The big differences between the steady output of nuclear generators and the intermittency of wind farms are well known, and there’s no need to go further into these again. But this, together with the additional costs of extending and strengthening the grid to reach far-flung wind farms and cope with their variable output, have a very big effect on the overall costs. Even without including these, a 2010 Mott MacDonald study for DECC, quoted in Electricity Costs: the folly of wind power (Civitas), showed nuclear and combined-cycle gas turbines to have the lowest levelised cost (the discounted cost per MWh over the lifetime of the plant).

This is only one view, of course, and readers may also like to look at Nonsense on stilts?, a critique from the Imperial College Centre for Energy Policy and Technology of a further report from Policy Exchange (The full cost to households of renewable energy policies). There are no black and white answers, because the issue is complex and conclusions always depend on the assumptions made. Nevertheless, there is a strong case to be made that nuclear new build cannot simply be ignored.For example, Sir David King, former government chief scientist, sees nuclear as an important part of the plan to reduce carbon intensity (Towards a low carbon pathway for the UK).

Nevertheless, there are still some worrying signs for nuclear. The Economist, for one, is taking a pessimistic view (The dream that failed), largely based on the high costs. Certainly, the recent history in Europe is not encouraging, with the new station in Finland way over budget, let alone the latest German policy. But China is continuing to build new stations, and the first new approvals have now also come through in the USA.

The elephant in the room is, of course, safety or, perhaps more accurately, perception of safety. Chernobyl, by far the worst nuclear accident, occurred in a poorly-designed and run facility, but has resulted in far fewer health problems than were predicted. Wildlife thrives in the exclusion zone, set up on the basis of an overly-precautionary approach to radiation (see Radiation and Reason for more information). Fukushima was not a failure of the nuclear reactor or containment vessel, but a design fault which allowed backup cooling pumps to be swamped by water. It was the tsunami which caused such widespread destruction, but the fears over the possible dangers of radiation which linger.

Until we have an entirely rational approach to risk assessment and management, there will be a strong anti-nuclear lobby in many countries. But invoking fears of the UK’s future energy policy being in the hands of a French-owned builder of reactors is unnecessary and unwarranted. 

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