Public Service Review: Central Government - Issue 14
The need for nuclear
15 May 2007
John McNamara, Nuclear Industry Association, offers his views on why nuclear energy is part of the solution to climate change and a low carbon economy, not the problem.
If you had dropped into a conversation in 2003 that you worked in the nuclear industry and fully supported the continued use of civil nuclear energy to power the UK's economy, your audience could have been excused for making a sharp exit.
If you had added that you and your 40,000 highly skilled, committed colleagues and trade union representatives considered themselves environmentalists, helping to provide the UK with stable base load electricity with no carbon emitted at point of generation, your audience might have been forgiven for smirking broadly and walking away shaking their heads.
If you had said that nuclear is part of the solution, not the problem, it would not have been much of a conversation at all.
But times change and as we know, 2006 will be remembered as a momentous one for the UK civil nuclear industry.
The year marked a crucial turning point for nuclear energy in the minds of industry leaders, politicians, the media and, to some extent, the British public.
Important developments included the long-awaited recommendations to the UK Government for long-term disposal of nuclear waste, and then the eagerly anticipated Energy Review itself, where nuclear's continued contribution to the UK's energy mix was underlined by Government Ministers.
The headlines kept coming. Along with Government's acknowledgement for the need for nuclear, the year was also marked by Prime Minister Tony Blair's controversial "back with a vengeance" speech at the CBI in May, where he personally backed new nuclear.
And the range of academics, scientists and high profile climate change commentators, who have also felt compelled to make a case for new nuclear power stations in the past four years, has helped fuel the debate and encouraged newspaper editors to cover an area they usually left well alone.
Climate change is now a 'top three' issue with editors – a universally recognised hot topic, with never ending opportunities for coverage, comment, debate and conflict. Just what any self-respecting media man wants.
The now urgent need to move towards a low carbon electricity mix that can heat and light our homes and drive the fifth largest economy in the world is news – and will continue to be news. So is the chilly realisation that we are moving rapidly towards a dependency on foreign imports of power to keep us warm. How can the media ignore these issues? How can the politicians or the general public?
The Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) is the representative voice of Britain's civil nuclear industry and along with its member companies has been at the forefront of the national debate surrounding these issues.
The NIA is a trade association representing more than 130 companies, including the main operators of nuclear power stations, those engaged in decommissioning, waste management, nuclear liabilities management and all aspects of the nuclear fuel cycle. And with trade union support it also campaigns for the future of those 40,000 nuclear workers in the UK.
The association warmly welcomed the Government's conclusion in the 2006 review that nuclear energy should continue to play a major part in the country's energy mix. The review gave clear recognition that nuclear, alongside renewables and much improved energy-efficiency, can make a major contribution to tackling climate change and lead to a sustainable low carbon economy.
Last year's review also confirmed the NIA's position that nuclear offers reliable, secure and affordable low carbon
electricity for the benefit of both consumers and the environment. It also underlined the Government's intention to introduce carbon pricing and to streamline the planning and licensing processes for all energy infrastructure projects, including nuclear. We talk continuously to our members and other large pan-European utilities and nuclear reactor vendors, and it is clear that these steps will help lead to private sector investment to build new nuclear in the UK without the need for government subsidy. We now look forward to the Government's White Paper in May when we hope for more clarity on some of these issues.
The NIA's submission to the Energy Review centred around nuclear's benefits of being carbon-free at point of generation, while delivering base load generation (up to 20% of the UK's electricity) from within the UK. These points tally with Tony Blair's "twin pressures" of the impending energy gap and the potential for over reliance on imported energy, and the need to combat climate change by becoming a low carbon economy. And don't forget, it is not just the individual's needs we are talking about here, but also the intensive energy users who run Britain's factories, trains, commerce, etc., who need affordable, reliable supplies of electricity. Nuclear is not subject to the massive hikes in fuel costs that can push the price of gas sky-high. Despite a worldwide nuclear renaissance leading to an upturn in demand for uranium, fuel is only a small part of the overall cost of nuclear. It is competitive, and it is stable – and that's what industry wants.
The facts are clear. Year on year our demand for electricity is rising by 1-2%. That is not nuclear spin, it is DTI source material. Carbon emissions are also rising, again based on independent analysis. So how can we possibly get cleaner and greener?
I believe the answer is by providing the right framework for massive investment in renewable energy, something perhaps the majority of us would agree on. By becoming much better at energy conservation (recent figures show new built homes in Sweden are 65% more energy-efficient than new built homes in the UK). And by the continued use of nuclear energy, which is currently the only large-scale source of low carbon electricity we have. One nuclear power station, like Sizewell B, produces enough electricity to generate the daily domestic needs of two million people (3% of all the UK's electricity) – without carbon emissions. The nuclear industry supports a balanced energy mix, including development of all low carbon technologies. But to put it into context, it would take 1,200 wind turbines to equate to Sizewell B's output, especially when you consider the station ran at full power non-stop for a record breaking 480 days, ending only with a statutory maintenance shutdown. That is round the clock, 24 hours a day, for 480 days, wind or no wind.
In just 10 years from now, there could be just three nuclear power stations still running in the UK (based on current closure dates). Nuclear's percentage contribution to the energy mix will be down in single figures. Surely nuclear, wind farms, solar, wave power, clean coal, energy-efficiency and carbon capture are all needed to combat climate change? If you erase nuclear's 20% from the low carbon balance sheet, you play catch up for decades. Where is the environmental gain in that?
For critics who say nuclear is not low carbon, a host of studies conducted in countries like Finland, Sweden and across the EU (including our own Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology report), looking at cradle-to-grave carbon emissions, point to a rather different conclusion that will surprise many people. These studies take into account mining of uranium through to building the nuclear plant, areas where, of course, carbon is emitted. But carbon is also emitted when fabricating wind turbines, building sub-stations and installing on-shore and off-shore wind farms. The studies show clearly that nuclear emits a fraction of the carbon that coal and gas installations do over their life-cycle. What may surprise many people is that nuclear is also less carbon-intensive than even wind power over the lifetime of the plant, megawatt for megawatt. Those 1,200 wind turbines do not come without an environmental impact.
As far as climate change is concerned, nuclear is part of the solution, not the problem. World-renowned environmentalists like James Lovelock agree. So do many respected academics and scientists, including the Government's own Chief Scientific Advisor Sir David King.
Recently, a BBC programme by Sir David Attenborough looked closely at how we can tackle the dangers of climate change. And what were Sir David's findings? Protect the rain forests, educate and legislate for total energy-efficiency, and research and development into all forms of renewables. And a 'three-fold increase' of safe, reliable nuclear energy, which at point of generation is carbon-free.
The UK nuclear industry has the experience, the skills and the capability to deliver a programme of modern new reactors to maintain nuclear energy's contribution to a low carbon energy mix, and to safely decommission plants that have reached the end of their working life.
In as little as 20 years, the UK could be counting on gas to supply 70% of our electricity. Of that, 90% will need to be imported. Britain will be at the very end of a long pipeline. Anyone who took an interest in last year's stand-off between Russia and the Ukraine (when Putin decided to cut supplies to his near neighbour) will need to hope the UK maintains very good relations with its suppliers. Reliance on imported energy is a risky business.
All indicators show public opinion is changing towards nuclear. In my view this is because there is now a grown-up, open debate about energy, climate change and nuclear. The public is, of course, unsure, worried even, about nuclear waste. But when the Stern Report was digested it became clear that other issues were overtaking the safe storage of nuclear materials. Stern's conclusions detail the cost of not doing anything as opposed to taking decisive action now to combat climate change. The full cost of inactivity, or failure to take difficult decisions, could be up to 20% of our GDP. And it is the stuff already going out into the atmosphere that is paramount now in most people's minds. I accept that eventual deep burial of nuclear waste will not please everyone – it is a legacy issue for future generations and the nuclear industry is sensitive to this. But there are other more pressing legacy issues too. The point is nuclear waste is contained. It's not out in the atmosphere causing harm.
Many of these arguments and issues have been played out in the media over the past two years. It has also been heartening to see Parliamentary support grow. In a recent Ipsos MORI poll commissioned by the NIA, a major swing towards positive attitudes to nuclear was revealed among some 108 MPs questioned.
There is a difficult and complex road towards a low carbon future. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth continue to oppose the use of civil nuclear energy and recently successfully challenged the Government's consultation process on new nuclear. Yet, the French are 80% nuclear and six of the eight closest nuclear reactors to London are on French soil. France is Europe's biggest exporter of electricity and has one of the lowest carbon emissions per head of population. Tough political decisions will need to be taken. But at least we can now debate fully the pros and cons of all the technologies at our disposal.
The nuclear industry will continue to work to ensure that the case for nuclear energy is strongly made and the voice of the industry is heard. I think now when we tell people in polite company that we work in the nuclear industry we expect an interesting and measured debate about the future of Britain's energy needs.