Why must the UK choose between nuclear and renewable energy? That was the question George Monbiot asked recently in a blog that challenged me to answer four questions. Here is a concise version of my answers: the full version of my answers will be posted on my website.
What has the Committee on Climate Change got wrong?
A lot. The principal source for the committee’s estimates would appear to be Decc’s own figures prepared for them by Mott MacDonald in June 2010. The assumptions on which this analysis is based are heroic, to put it mildly.
As pointed out by Andrew Broadbent (of CES Social and Economic Research), these figures have been challenged by a wide range of very different cost projections. Broadbent quotes the authoritative World Nuclear Status report which suggests that nuclear costs would be much higher, and that it is certainly not “the most cost-effective” low-carbon technology.
“Because of implicit and explicit guarantees, the private cost element of nuclear is uncertain and continues to escalate … and the public subsidy portion is generally missing entirely, so that nuclear cannot be properly compared to alternatives, nor can the potentially enormous cost to taxpayers be properly vetted.”
MacDonald produced a new report in May 2011 which pretty much contradicts its own 2010 report. As Broadbent points out:
“Its most important conclusion is that the relative costs of different energy-generating technologies actually depend on which technology is given priority by policy makers. The report says: ‘It is possible to find cases where offshore wind, CCS and nuclear are each lower cost than the other two.’”
“This means that if renewables are deployed extensively, they may well be cheaper than nuclear. Why the committee came to airbrush this vital conclusion, and choose not to point out that government itself has the responsibility for deciding whether to make renewable energy the most cost-effective option, can only be guessed at.”
This is not the place to go into the voluminous literature on hidden subsidies on nuclear power, but the committee makes only passing reference to perhaps the most egregious distortion: the indirect subsidy in the form of insurance liability.
In view of this, it is highly ironic that Vincent de Rivaz, CEO of EDF can regularly be heard calling for a “level playing field” for different energy sources, knowing full well that every other electricity supplier carries its own third-party liability costs.
Does Monbiot – or anyone, for that matter, on the Committee on Climate Change – actually understand the scale of this subsidy? Recent research by Versicherungsforen Leipzig GmbH (summary in English), a company that specialises in actuarial calculations, shows that full insurance against nuclear disasters would increase the price of nuclear electricity by a range of values – €0.14 per kilowatt hours (kWh) up to €2.36 per kWh – depending on assumptions made.
By the time you factor in all the hidden subsidies, the Committee on Climate Change’s figure of £96 per megawatt hours has no more validity than any other competing estimate, and it is entirely disingenuous of the committee to put it in the public domain without making clear just how spurious the figure really is.
The Committee on Climate Change should really know better – as should Monbiot.
Predictably, investors know better. Which is why no reactor ever has been, or ever will be, built without massive public subsidy – a point readily conceded by most industry representatives.
Finally, the committee’s estimate also makes no allowance for additional, post-Fukushima cost increases. Every energy economist I know acknowledges unreservedly that the cost of nuclear will continue to go up even as the cost of solar PV continues to come down. The World Nuclear Status report from Schneider, Froggatt & Thomas concludes: “Despite the disproportionately lower support historically, some analysts consider solar photovoltaic energy to be competitive with nuclear new-build projects under current real-term prices. “.
Monbiot has been unsighted on the costs of PV for a long time, . I hope he has now had a chance to read the Ernst & Young Outlook on the UK solar PV industry which points to grid parity for PV here in the UK without any subsidy by 2020? It will happen well before that in Germany as a direct consequence of the far-sighted decisions they took many years ago.
Germany plans to generate 50% of its daytime electricity from solar by 2020 – with installed capacity of 52 gigawatts (GW). Despite the fact that solar PV has the potential to meet more than 30% of the UK’s day-time electricity by 2040, our target for 2020 is just 2.7GW – not much more than the 2GW that Germany installed in June 2010 alone.
It’s still not too late for the UK. But Monbiot has become a big part of the problem. His inability (or unwillingness) to track solar cost trends has fixed him in a weird contrarian crusade to undermine the solar industry.
Can nuclear and renewables not co-exist?
For me, there are four main reasons why co-existence has become a foolish pipedream.
1) The lobbying position of the nuclear industry itself
Until the middle of 2009, the nuclear industry’s public position was a “both/and” position – with room for both renewables and nuclear. Since then, however, nuclear industry leaders have become increasingly vocal in arguing that if the UK government persists with its target of generating 15% of energy from renewables by 2020 (which means at least 35% of our electricity from renewables), then the nuclear industry will suffer very severely.
Both EDF and E-ON are on the record in making this case with growing stridency. And I’m sure Monbiot’s sources inside Decc will have told him in no uncertain terms that what these companies say in public is a pale shadow of the virulently anti-renewables lobbying that they’re doing behind the scenes. How else could EDF hope to recoup the £12bn it’s already laid out to purchase nuclear sites here in the UK?
2) Financial opportunity costs
Nuclear power is the most capital-intensive of all supply options. With estimates ranging from £4bn to £5.5bn for a new nuclear reactor, there is a clear risk that other options will be frozen out by this level of capital commitment.
There will also be significant opportunity costs regarding energy efficiency – as well as renewables. Every billion that goes back to the nuclear industry is a billion that isn’t going into retro-fitting our hopelessly inefficient housing stock – and simultaneously sorting out the continuing scandal of extraordinarily high levels of fuel poverty here in the UK.
Sometimes Monbiot is naive. Does he really think a “both/and” world is available when the Treasury is imposing a ruthless cap both on direct payments from tax revenues and on levies taken from consumer bills?
3) Political opportunity costs
The Sustainable Development Commission’s 2006 report commented specifically on this:
“Were it to be decided to proceed with a new reactor programme, there is no doubt that this decision would command a substantial slice of political leadership. Political attention would shift, and in all likelihood undermine efforts to pursue a strategy based on energy efficiency, renewables and more CHP.”
The electricity market reforms announced recently provide ample evidence to that effect. Our entire electricity market system is now being rigged to provide a wholly unjustifiable continuing subsidy to the nuclear industry, while doing a lot less than is required to promote renewables and absolutely nothing to put efficiency at the heart of that reform process.
4) Constraints in upgrading the grid
More and more industry specialists are concerned about what is sometimes called a “system clash” between a generation system based predominantly on a small number of nuclear reactors and large-scale gas or coal-fired power stations, and a system based on multiple renewable generators and more distributed local area networks. Greenpeace’s report (The Battle of the Grids) eloquently highlights just how problematic this already is in Europe, where it has become commonplace in a number of countries to switch off wind turbines during periods of plentiful electricity supply in order to give priority to nuclear and coal-fired plant.
The high-capital costs and the nature of nuclear reactors means you need to run them all the time for both economic and engineering reasons. If there are 16 GW of new nuclear, as the government proposes, preference will clearly be given to purchasing from this source.
In conclusion, Monbiot should know better than to take the nuclear industry’s “both/and” rhetoric at face value. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if he reads his own words as carefully as others do: “Power corrupts; nuclear power corrupts absolutely … nuclear operators worldwide have been repeatedly exposed as a bunch of arm-twisting, corner-cutting scumbags.” That’s powerful posturing. It’s as if he’s trying to cover up his own embarrassment at ending up as a pawn of the nuclear industry by being ruder about them (on a personal basis) than any anti-nuclear activist would think of being. I hope that strategy works for him; it certainly doesn’t for me.
Are renewables always better?
I believe the answer to that question, today, is a clear “yes”. I cannot guess what the situation might be in the future, and I’ve always supported the continuation of research into new nuclear technologies. It is indeed conceivable that at some stage in the future new reactor designs could prove to be so superior that we would be mad not to take advantage of such breakthroughs in the supply mix. We should continue to keep that door open.
However, I’ve heard so many promises of “better things to come” from the nuclear industry over the past 40 years that I attach very little significance to the current wave of similar promises.
Right now (and for at least the next decade I would argue) proven renewable technologies offer a much more secure supply-side strategy.
Monbiot knows as well as I do that 100% renewables (and geothermal) is where we need to get to eventually – so why not seek to get there just as soon as possible without yet another disastrous foray into today’s nuclear cul-de-sac?
There are two other reasons for always favouring renewables over nuclear. It seems to me to be all-but-inevitable that there will be attempts at a terrorist attack on some nuclear facility somewhere in the world at some stage over the next decade. Secondly, and very briefly, we have to address the issue of proliferation. As Tom Burke has put it: “Atoms cannot be made to work for peace without making them available for war”.
If you are to exclude nuclear entirely, what should the mix of electricity generation in this country be?
As Monbiot is aware, there are a growing number of voices arguing that we can indeed provide almost all the energy we need from renewable resources. The report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (adopted by 194 governments on 9th May 2011) shows how we could get up to 80% of the energy we need from renewable energy sources.
So my “vision” of a sustainable energy future for the UK is relatively simple. I believe a 100% renewable supply strategy for the UK is feasible by 2050 at the latest, assuming only that we succeed in reducing total energy consumption in the UK by at least 40% by 2030 through a wholly different approach to energy efficiency than any government has ever demonstrated before.
Andrew Warren, chief executive of the Association for Conservation of Energy, continues to highlight the contrast between the UK, which is anticipating a doubling in electricity demand, and Germany, which has a target to reduce total consumption by at least 30% – in an economy that is already much more energy efficient than ours.
But I readily acknowledge that this combination of renewables and efficiency will take some time to deliver. There will need to be some “generating bridge” to get us to that 2050 point. For me, this comes down to a straight choice between his “least worst option”, namely nuclear, and my “least worst option”, gas plus carbon capture and storage (CCS). Both nuclear and CCS are hugely expensive, and CCS is still unproven at scale. But we’re almost certainly going to need CCS anyway (installed even on biomass plants) given the speed at which greenhouse gases continue to build up in the atmosphere. And at least gas is relatively cheap, relatively easily available, and relatively easy to build. Gas-powered stations built over the next five to 10 years could be economically retired from 2035 onwards.
In conclusion, I’ve answered Monbiot’s four questions, even though they’re not necessarily the most important questions. I’ve not even touched on those issues that matter most to the many people that remain hostile to or sceptical about nuclear power: radiation risk, radioactive waste management, fuel supply and manufacture, decommissioning, coastal siting, water availability, flooding and so on.
And nor have I raised any of the ethical issues associated with our generation opting for another round of nuclear. A proportion both of the risks and of the costs associated with this industry will fall on citizens who were not party to these decisions. For me, there is no way that this can possibly pass the “intergenerational justice” test.
I’ve come to the conclusion that Monbiot’s controversialist instincts have blinded him, in this instance, to the inadequacy of his research, the untrustworthiness of his sources and the potentially damaging consequences of his bizarre pro-nuclear advocacy. Monbiot has caused many in the nuclear industry (and in government) to delight in his “Damascene conversion”, an unexpected turn of events that they are already ruthlessly exploiting. All this might be seen as an acceptable price to pay if he had a solid case to make – which he transparently does not.
- Why the UK must choose renewables over nuclear: an answer to Monbiot | Jonathon Porritt (guardian.co.uk)
- Email to Monbiot (ikners.com)
- Monbiot on Jellyfish (ikners.com)
- Been waiting a long time for this. But not surprised. Are you? Think first a Monbiot point of view (ikners.com)
- George Monbiot on the environmental fight (ikners.com)
- Monbiot is this a shift in opinion???? You may think so???? (ikners.com)
- Monbiot on Sydney (ikners.com)
- Monbiot on the UK dismantling the environmental program. The capital project set to break the only reasonable response to the environmental destruction it has caused. (ikners.com)
- Monbiot on fossil fuels (ikners.com)
- Monbiot: Global Warming Jellyfish Apocalypse – End of Vertebrate Life Is Nigh. (hauntingthelibrary.wordpress.com)
- Nuclear power is it an alternative or just another wrong turn in the road? (ikners.com)
- Letters: Fourth generation nuclear plants are far from a cure-all (guardian.co.uk)
- Nuclear good for now but what happens later. (ikners.com)
- Another version of the Gillard fiasco??? (ikners.com)