Nuclear power? Yes please!: A former opponent calls on Chris Huhne to embrace the energy source that's cheap AND good for the environment
By FRED PEARCE
I never thought I’d say this – but the future is nuclear. Or it should be. And I urge Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne – who, like me, has been an opponent of nuclear power – to embrace that future. Our energy bills depend on it. And so may our climate.
Huhne’s ‘green tax’ sparked anger last week as it became clear that this surcharge on our energy bills will rise to £280 a year for every household by the end of the decade.
The future? Nuclear power should be the way forward
For what? Some of the revenue from the tax, currently set at £89 per household, goes to pay for renewable energy projects such as the sleek and costly offshore wind turbines sprouting across the North Sea. But don’t worry, Huhne says, because the tax will also pay to cut our need for energy by subsidising home insulation, better boilers and the like. We will all end up better off.
There is a deal of scepticism about that claim. And many people would prefer a couple of hundred quid in their pockets than a pile of foam insulation in their loft.
To be fair to Huhne, our current high energy bills are not mainly because of the green tax. The real problem for now is rising prices for gas and other fuels. But behind the immediate stink is a bigger issue. How do we want to get our electricity in future?
The truth is that our energy industry is in a mess. Ever since privatisation, the utilities have been mired in short-term thinking and have failed to invest. The big power stations built by the old Central Electricity Generating Board are reaching the end of their lives.
Unless Huhne does something to replace them, he will be remembered as the Minister who left us huddled over candles as well as forking out for a green tax.
George Osborne is set to announce plans to accelerate infrastructure building as a recession-busting measure
Hopefully, Chancellor George Osborne will kick-start that process on Tuesday by announcing plans to accelerate infrastructure building as a recession-busting measure. But that still begs the question: What should we build? Should we opt for burning coal and gas, irradiating uranium or using Huhne’s green tax to harness the winds and tides?
In my judgment any long-term planning that ignores climate change is not just anti-green but botched business. Climate change is real. Admittedly, there are big uncertainties about how fast it will proceed, and what havoc it could cause. But the billions of tons of greenhouse gases we put into the atmosphere each year by burning coal, oil and gas are trapping ever more of the sun’s heat. That’s 200-year-old physics.
So the world is going to have to move to low-carbon energy – and the sooner we get on this road the better. In Britain, now is the perfect time. And here is the good news. We don’t have to pay through the nose for a low-carbon future. All we have to do is to conquer our fear of nuclear power.
In fact, I see no sensible low-carbon future that does not involve a lot of nuclear power.
Here’s why. First, by most measures nuclear is much greener than renewables. Yes, you read that right. Like them, it is indisputably low-carbon. No carbon is burned in a nuclear reactor, so no carbon dioxide is produced.
But because you can get gigawatts of power from one site, nuclear is the only form of low-carbon energy that won’t blight the British countryside with wind turbines, solar panels or fleets of new pylons. Even better, because we have plenty of nuclear sites across the country where old power plants are shutting, new ones can be slotted in easily.
Second, nuclear is cheap. It is not yet quite as cheap as coal or gas but it is only half the cost of offshore wind, and an even better bargain compared with solar panels or tidal power. That calculation, incidentally, includes the huge costs of handling spent nuclear fuel and decommissioning the reactor when its days are done.
Energy Secretary Chris Huhne has been an opponent to nuclear power
Third, nuclear is doable. France spotted this long ago. Starting in the Seventies, it fitted itself out with enough nukes to power most of the country – in just a decade. France now has some of the cheapest electricity in Europe. And the company that did it, EDF, would love to do the same here.
Of course, nuclear has a PR problem. Some say it is unsafe. Yet even when nature threw a magnitude-nine earthquake and a 50 ft tsunami at a clapped-out Japanese nuclear plant at Fukushima this year, the meltdown failed to kill anyone.
Then the German government announced it would phase out all its nuclear power plants by 2022. But that was a big environmental own goal for a country supposedly dedicated to fighting climate change because coal will be the big winner. Germany’s carbon emissions will rise as a result. Nice work, greens.
Some say we can’t handle the waste. Britain is sitting on enough high-level nuclear waste to fill three Olympic swimming pools, and enough intermediate waste to fill a supertanker. It’s all waiting for a final resting place. But for that we can blame vehement environmental opposition to every proposed burial site.
For the greens to argue that nuclear technology must be abandoned because disposal routes haven’t been secured is a bit rich. They are largely to blame. Even so, the radioactive nasties are mollycoddled in storage. It costs us £2 billion a year (thanks again, greens) but it is safe.
I fear the millions of tons of carbon dioxide spewing out of the coal-fired behemoths at Drax and Ferrybridge, Fiddlers Ferry and Didcot far more than the radiation that is under lock and key at Sellafield. If scientists are anything like right in their climate predictions, those carbon emissions are killing machines for the future.
Many greens – including Huhne before he became a Minister – like to believe that we can ban nukes and still banish climate change. But by throwing away the nuclear option, we would be throwing away the best – and cheapest – way of making big cuts in carbon emissions.
Their muddled thinking is in danger of pushing up our energy bills and peppering the countryside with wind turbines – without fixing the climate.
The Government’s Committee on Climate Change was right this year to conclude that nuclear is ‘the most cost-effective of the low-carbon technologies’ and might generate 40 per cent of our power by 2030. But we have to choose now.
As Huhne told the Royal Society in London last month, ‘time is running out . . . a quarter of our power stations will close by the end of the decade’.
We need a new generation of power stations urgently.
We will need renewables and nuclear. Will Huhne bite the bullet? His website contains abundant evidence of his past opposition. ‘Nuclear power not needed to meet climate targets’ is the headline on one item from 2007.
But it is needed. If Huhne doesn’t make it happen, he will indeed be guilty of squandering our green taxes.
- Fred Pearce is an author and environmental consultant at New Scientist magazine.
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