The establishment’s obsession with nuclear power just won’t die
By Jonathon Porritt
This is absolutely the right time for a new Energy Strategy. Unfortunately, we’ve got absolutely the wrong politicians in charge of it. In the UK, the combination of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak all but guarantees that the new Energy Security Strategy will fail on most counts.
– In Boris Johnson, we have a careless showman, drawn unerringly to ‘big ticket’ announcements, groomed by a nuclear industry that knows exactly how to play to these personality defects.
– In Rishi Sunak, we have a man so detached from the reality of most people’s lives that the prospect of five million UK citizens finding themselves in fuel poverty by the end of the year means literally nothing.
Careless Johnson and callous Sunak is a devastating double-act – with the inconsequential figure of Kwasi Kwarteng (UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) lurking around to pick up the pieces.
There will, of course, be some welcome commitments in the new UK Strategy, particularly on solar and offshore wind, with a hugely encouraging pipeline of new developments in both now underpinning the UK’s decarbonisation strategy. Onshore wind may well get more encouragement than in the past, but the aesthetic sensibilities of Tory Nimbies will still matter more to Johnson and Sunak than the opportunity to ramp up the single most cost-effective source of renewable electricity – coming in at an astonishing 20% of the cost of new nuclear! Yet again, those ‘hard-working families’ Johnson constantly refers to will pay the price for this appalling policy failure.
The UK establishment’s obsession with nuclear power just won’t die. Boris Johnson is heading off down a well-worn path. Margaret Thatcher promised to build a nuclear reactor every year for ten years at the start of her time in office. In 2006, Tony Blair vowed to bring back nuclear power ‘with a vengeance’. David Cameron’s Government identified opportunities for a massive expansion of nuclear.
However, apart from Sizewell B (which came online in 1995) and EDF’s grotesquely expensive monster emerging at Hinkley Point C, there’s nothing to show for all that overblown nuclear enthusiasm. The industry blames this 40-year failure on everyone else – including a generation of anti-nuclear campaigners. In truth, the blame lies entirely with the industry itself, mendaciously promoting outdated, dangerous, increasingly expensive technologies.
Johnson’s big nuclear bets will almost certainly include big reactors at both Sizewell C and Wylfa, and as many as possible of the so-called ‘small reactors’ being pushed by Rolls-Royce. Regardless of the hype, the economic reality of all of these bets is dire:
Sizewell C – with the Chinese out of the picture, the Government will be looking to its new Regulated Asset Base funding model (with consumers having to pay up front) to persuade private investors to get on board. Backed (so far) by the promise of £1.75bn of taxpayers’ money.
Wylfa – so much effort has gone into trying to get a new reactor at Wylfa over the line over the last ten years! All to no avail – primarily for economic reasons. Any renewed ‘firm commitment’ for Wylfa will mean as little as all previous commitments.
Rolls-Royce’s Small Modular Reactors – apparently, Johnson is particularly excited by this prospect, even though they’re not even remotely small (at 470MW, they’re actually as big as the first generation of Magnox reactors here in the UK!), and no-one has ever done modular construction (offsite in factory settings) before now.
And none of these ‘exciting prospects’ will give Johnson (let alone hard-pressed UK consumers) one single electron in terms of helping to meet the Government’s target to have carbon-free electricity by 2035.
At least Rishi Sunak would appear to have recognised all this nuclear nonsense for the massive con trick it is. As far as the Treasury is concerned, a few hundred million to prop up Rolls-Royce, and a couple of billion to keep the prospect of Sizewell C alive – that’s acceptable, it would seem. Beyond that, from the Chancellor’s perspective, lies one vast funding black hole. Not least because of nuclear waste.
Courtesy of the mainstream media’s cosy relationship with the nuclear industry, we hardly ever hear about this. But the Treasury writes a cheque to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority of around £2.5bn every year – to deal with the legacy of our earlier nuclear investments in terms of waste management and decommissioning. The price tag just for cleaning up Sellafield has now risen to an astonishing £97bn! On top of that, the anticipated cost of an underground storage facility to house the high-level waste for thousands of years has now risen to as much as £53bn – according to the Government’s own figures. That’s the cost of old nuclear. It will be no different with any new nuclear.
But beyond his deep caution on that score, Sunak disappoints at every turn. He’s as culpable as Johnson in refusing to acknowledge the single most important element in any energy security strategy: EFFICIENCY. Whatever the source of the electrons we eventually rely on in the future, what really matters is the efficiency with which we use them – in our homes (one in every six tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK comes from our homes, with 19 million of our 29 million homes performing below the required level), non-domestic buildings, and manufacturing.
I can pretty much guarantee that all this will get short shrift in the new Strategy. Equally, I can guarantee that there will be the standard scare stories about ‘inevitable increases in electricity demand’, as were used so dishonestly by Thatcher, Blair and Cameron. Both Blair and Cameron justified their pro-nuclear fantasies on the ‘inevitability’ of massive growth in electricity demand. In 2006, Blair asserted that demand would be at least 15% higher in the early 2020s; in fact, demand is now 15% lower – a 30% disparity that goes a long way to explain the utter uselessness of BEIS’s forecasting capabilities.
As it happens, demand will grow over the next 25 years as we electrify both heating (with electric heat pumps replacing gas boilers) and transport (with EVs replacing the internal combustion engine) – which is precisely why a long-term Energy Efficiency Strategy should be the single most important element in any moves to enhance the UK’s energy security.
Combine this with the moral imperative of reducing fuel poverty, through a multi-year, multi-billion-pound programme to retrofit the UK’s appalling housing stock, and our continuing obsession with nuclear power becomes all the more reprehensible.
Which makes the Labour Party’s current positioning all the more inexcusable, with Keir Starmer focusing his attack on the Government by highlighting its failure to accelerate nuclear power! Starmer knows – for sure – that prioritising nuclear power means worsening the burden on those millions living in fuel poverty, simultaneously undermining our prospects of ever getting to Net Zero by 2050. But he also knows that supporting nuclear power is part of the massive cost that has to be paid for the UK to retain its nuclear weapons capability. Those two industries – civil and military – are joined at the hip. And that’s the price Labour is prepared to pay, election after election, to make itself ‘electable’.
The truth of it is that we’ll never have energy security in this country as long as we persist with the belief that our national security still depends on maintaining an independent nuclear deterrent.
Jonathon Porritt is a member of the Green Party, former Chair of the UK Sustainable Development Commission, author and campaigner.
Headline photo by Jack Zalium/Creative Commons
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