Keep the nuclear genie
in its bottle
One of the most quotable quotes of US actor and entertainer Will Rogers is: ‘If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.’ It can often be applied in all walks of life – including the energy sector, as we shall see.
One of the reasons why it is such a wonderful comment is that it applies so well to human behaviour. For example, when we are doing something senseless but do not realize it, we continue happily in the belief that it is the right thing to do. Or even when we discover that what we have been doing is senseless but take the view that the only way to avoid calamity is to carry on doing exactly the same thing.
Even the world’s leaders, being human, in most cases, are subject to this behaviour. Just at a time when they are being forced to address major strategic energy challenges and to seek cost-effective solutions for addressing climate change, limiting the impacts of high energy costs and dealing with regional energy shortages, they are all digging harder than ever.
One of the biggest holes in question is the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), an international collaborative project to develop commercial power generation systems based on nuclear fusion technology. With the project already having swallowed billions, it was announced in June that another €10 billion or so was going to be invested in a new round of research in France. ITER supporters believe that nuclear fusion might deliver commercial energy some time within the next 50–80 years.
What would you do with €10 billion if you had to solve a whole series of short- to medium-term energy challenges? It’s doubtful that ITER would be on most people’s shopping lists. That sum of money would buy one heck of a lot of energy efficiency, DE/CHP and renewable energy. And the investor would get a good rate of return. No returns for a long time, if ever, with ITER. Most people know that ITER has been a waste of money, so it is probably safe to assume that our leaders think that the only way they can recover their losses is to invest even more. This is the mindset of the compulsive gambler.
Let’s move along a bit and peer into another nuclear hole. The UK’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority announced in August that the country’s nuclear power plant portfolio would require around £60 billion ($110 billion) to decommission. In the unlikely event that this figure is not an under-estimate, this amounts to around £4000/kWe ($7300) of installed capacity. Even allowing for the fact that new nuclear plants will have significantly lower costs, this admission is a fairly clear indication that investors in future plants would lose their shirts unless protected by public financial guarantees – i.e. yours and mine.
There is certainly a spring in the step of the nuclear industry these days. They are convinced that the need for low-carbon generation has bought them a reprieve from a couple of decades of neglect. However, WADE’s growing body of economic research and analysis shows that their hopes shou
would allow the UK to offer international leadership on climate change
The UK Government claims to be taking a leading role in international climate politics, yet progress towards a more efficient, decentralized energy system in Britain has hardly been inspiring. Greenpeace’s Leonie Greene suggests that more encouragement for DE at home would be a good start.
We have just 20 years to put global carbon dioxide emissions on a steep downward trend. Failure to take ‘urgent and strenuous’ action between now and then could commit us to ‘dangerous’ climate change with appalling consequences for billions around the world by 2050. This isn’t Greenpeace rhetoric but the alarming conclusions of the scientific community this year for the UK Government’s conference on the science of climate change. With warnings like this coming thicker and faster, climate change has shot up the political agenda.
Internationally, the UK Government positions itself as a leader on climate change mitigation on account of its own success in putting UK emissions on track for meeting its Kyoto target – not something many countries have achieved. It certainly looks like leadership – and leadership is desperately needed. But scratch the surface and the foundations for international grandstanding are pretty shaky.
Most of the UK’s ‘success’ in bringing down emissions is based purely on the dash for gas of the 1990s as a result of low gas prices. The unavoidable and urgent energy revolution that climate change demands has barely begun. In fact, we are not yet even in the position where politicians have appreciated the real breadth of our energy options.
AN IRRATIONAL APPROACH
Politicians have certainly grasped the basics. Climate change puts the power sector (among others) firmly under the spotlight. After all, the electricity sector contributes a third of carbon dioxide emissions in the UK. Beyond that, the cool-headed logic required to shape the foolproof strategy needed in a warming world evaporates. For all the hand wringing that is now taking place, and the woeful nods towards nuclear power, it comes as a great surprise to many politicians to learn that the centralized electricity systems that dominate the developed world are the embodiment of technological inertia, performing little better today than they did in the 1970s. Almost two thirds of primary energy is wasted in the UK’s centralized electricity system (see Figure 1), mostly in the form of heat, and in volumes that exceed the entire thermal energy needs for space and water heating of every building in the UK. It is a similar story in many other countries. In the face of climate change and mounting security concerns, this is indefensible. As readers of COSPP will be aware, the technological know-how to address this has been with us for decades.