Derek Brower: The UK goes nuclear

Gordon Brown’s government thinks it has an answer to the twin problems of climate change and energy security By Derek Brower in London SOMETIMES governments make the right decision the wrong way. Tomorrow, Gordon Brown’s Labour government will do just that, when Business Secretary John Hutton announces its support for a new generation of nuclear power stations to be built in the country. nuke.jpg The Conservative opposition is likely to endorse the main body of the proposals, meaning that the legislation should go through the House with little trouble. But the opposition to nuclear power in the media and among protest groups in the UK is strong – so the wailing and complaining after tomorrow’s announcement will be loud and long.

Opponents will say that the government is pressing ahead with nuclear power despite opposition to it among the general public (even if many opinion polls say something quite different). They will also say that Brown’s support for nuclear is nepotistic: his brother works for EdF, the French company that hopes to build some of the nuclear plants the government has endorsed. However true these objections are, and however cack-handed the government’s behaviour in the consultation period, the government’s decision tomorrow to endorse nuclear is the correct one.The objectors have had their day. Antipathy to nuclear power is one of the reasons why no new nuclear power station has been built in a generation and why only one of the existing 16 will be on-line after 2023, by which time the others will have been mothballed.There are two pressing energy issues facing UK governments. One is climate change and the other is energy security. On both fronts, things aren’t looking too rosy. As Oxford academic Dieter Helm has shown, the UK’s recent record on climate change – an issue on which it has sought to claim international leadership – is poor. Emissions fell between 1990 and 2005, helping the UK to beat its Kyoto targets ahead of schedule. But they’ve risen since then. The country won’t meet its own 2012 emissions reductions targets and, like most other European countries, is unlikely to meet the 2020 targets set by the EU, either.On energy security, the decline of the North Sea as a producing region is an old story. And, in fact, the UK has done well to diversify its imports of natural gas, with new pipelines from Norway and the continent, as well as new liquefied natural gas. But as homeowners across the country are about to discover, that doesn’t mean prices for energy in the UK won’t be set outside the country’s borders. Domestic distributors of energy are warning their customers that it is they who will pay for rising wholesale energy costs. And with natural gas prices in Europe indexed against the price of crude, record-breaking oil prices aren’t good news for countries like the UK who depend so heavily on imports from neighbours on the continent.In theory, there are three ways that the UK could drastically reduce its emissions in the long-term and also enhance its energy security: renewable energy, reduction of demand, and nuclear power. The country needs all of them. But of the three, only nuclear, despite a dodgy history in this country of poor financial management, is truly viable – both in terms of scale and in terms of politics.Renewables must, of course, be part of the mix. But few outside of the environmental movement believe that wind, solar or any other green source can be relied on to meet the energy demand of the country. Even the EU’s goal of seeing renewables meet 20% of the energy supply by 2020 looks fantastical.Reducing demand for dirty fossil fuels would be ideal, constraining emissions while also cutting the transfer of capital from consumers in the UK or EU to governments in places like Russia and the Middle East, the main suppliers. Asking people to use energy-saving light bulbs, to recycle their waste, and to drive more efficient cars is one thing. But telling them that the fundamental link between economic growth and energy consumption must end – and with it society as we know it – is politically impossible.Can a new generation of nuclear plants solve the problems of energy security and climate change? Not entirely, but it can mitigate them. Given the decommissioning of the existing plants that will happen over the next fifteen years, the first task is to replace that capacity, which presently meets about 20% of demand. Then more must be installed to meet rising demand. As opponents of the new plan have pointed out, the impact of 10 new plants on emissions could be quite small – less than 10%, say some environmentalists opposed to nuclear. And, says Greenpeace, the cuts won’t be felt until after 2025. But that isn’t an argument to build fewer or no nuclear plants; it is an argument to build more, as quickly as possible.Nuclear power doesn’t drive cars or fly aeroplanes, so it is no panacea for the carbon problem. And it is expensive to build the plants and decommission them, even if running them costs peanuts. If the UK is to execute this transition properly, the government must support the nuclear programme fully: ensure that sufficient numbers of scientists, able to manage the country’s nuclear programme, emerge from the universities; and provide the right subsidies and financial support to make the transition work. Nuclear must be a central part of the mix. No other source can supply carbon-free baseload electricity – some 20,000 MW in the UK — on such a scale. So if necessary, the UK government and its taxpayers must be willing to pay for it.Nor can any other source provide the same scale of baseload capacity with little threat to the energy security of the country it supplies. Wind, wave, and solar power would do wonders for the energy security of a country like Tuvalu. But for 60m people in the UK, they can, alas, only be peripheral contributors.The Brown government has blundered through the past few months. But anyone who wishes to see the UK adopt a practical, realistic policy that will begin to deal with the twin problems of energy security and climate change should applaud when Hutton makes his statement in the House of Commons tomorrow.