Whatever the evidence against, it’s still nuclear

Today’s Commons statement on energy policy by Ed Miliband is an act of faith which is pitted with flaws which remain unanswered and even unheeded. On renewables, he noted that offshore wind generation increased by two-thirds last year and onshore by a quarter, without admitting that together they still contribute only 2% of electricity generation, the lowest by far in the EU except for Malta and Luxemburg, and not remotely within reach of the 30-40% target needed by 2020. On his oxymoron of ‘clean fossil fuels’, he revealed that his plans depended entirely on deploying carbon capture and storage (CCS) on all new coal-fired power stations by 2020, without acknowledging that no CCS prototype exists anywhere in the world and both the technical viability and commercial cost-effectiveness of CCS remain wholly unproven, that dirty post-combustion coal projects will continue till at least 2020, and that a large levy on electricity consumers will be necessary to get 100% retrofit of CCS. But the heart of his statement concerned nuclear, and here most clearly his case is built on a wing and a prayer.

Miliband told the House that the Government intended to build 16GW of new nuclear power stations, equal to nearly a quarter of total electricity generation, but then admitted that the viability of nuclear depended on getting a robust carbon price agreed at Copenhagen, which he must have a snowball’s chance in hell of achieving. He said that all the 11 sites around the country that had been nominated for new nuclear stations had been approved except for Dungeness, though without recognising that almost all are coastal sites less than 20 metres above sea level and will be subject to increasingly violent storm surge and flooding as climate changes intensifies, which will require highly costly sea defences and will put the disposal of extensive nuclear waste greatly at risk.
He used 6 published energy policy statements to ‘justify’ (according to statutory criteria) the building of new nuclear plant. Yet French and Finnish as well as UK regulators have all recently agreed that the current control systems of the ‘evolutionary’ EPR reactor are due for architectural change. In other words the reactor is still being designed, and international regulators are insisting there are still huge uncertainties around the safety of designs. Hence the Government cannot properly sanction justification for new nuclear plant when the reactor design has still not been decided – a classic case of putting the cart before the horse.
Other problems were left hanging in the air. We were told that the first new nuclear plants could be operating by 2018, yet every nuclear build has historically been subject to huge delays – Sizewell B by 10 years and currently Olkiluoto in Finland by at least 3 years. We were told blandly that “the Government is satisfied that effective arrangements to manage and dispose of the waste from new nuclear power stations can be put in place”. Piffle – there is no long-term, safe, cost-effective precedent for this anywhere in the world. No mention was made of cost, yet without carbon price underpinning and/or a hidden insurance subsidy from government the economics of nuclear look bleak.

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