The end of nuclear power? Careful what you wish for
Flawed and stalled as the plans for toxic waste may be, at least they exist. There is no way to clean up CO2, the greater evil
The Guardian, Monday 4 February 2013 20.30 GMT
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‘Abandoning a proven and reliable low-carbon technology as climate breakdown accelerates is a special form of madness.’ Illustration: Daniel Pudles
Is this the end? According to the Green MP Caroline Lucas, new nuclear power in this country has been “completely derailed”. She may not be wrong. She was talking about the decision by Cumbria county council to reject the nuclear waste dump the government had planned.
But she could just as well have been responding to the new report by a parliamentary committee, or to the declaration of surrender by Centrica: the last British company with a stake in the technology in the country. Put the three of them together and they add weight to the claims of those who maintain that atomic energy is finished in the United Kingdom. As I’ve spent much of the past two years defending it, this is a hard admission to make.
I don’t blame the people of Cumbria for rejecting the dump: the plan was an expensive, erudite and technically advanced dog’s breakfast. The location the government had chosen had only one virtue: availability. Or so it thought. The nuclear-friendly county turned out to be no more enthused about mopping up the industry’s excretions than the rest of Britain. No dump in Cumbria means no dump anywhere.
The whole thing was misdirected anyway: it was a waste of waste. The material the government wants to bury could produce – according to an estimate endorsed by the chief scientific adviser to its energy department – enough low-carbon energy to supply all the UK’s electricity needs for 500 years. Integral fast reactors can, in principle, keep recycling nuclear waste until a tiny residue remains, whose components have half-lives of tens rather than millions of years. The government’s failure in Cumbria could become an opportunity: to treat the waste as an asset, rather than a liability. But I’m not holding my breath.
No one has made atomic energy harder to love than the industry that supplies it. Today its long and colourful record of corner-cutting, incompetence and cover-ups was supplemented by the Commons public accounts committee’s report. “Basic project management failings continue to cause delays and increase costs” at Sellafield, where the waste is being stored.
The past is a mess, the future a thicket. Centrica was reported on Sunday to be pulling out because the cost of building new plants has soared. While other sources of low-carbon energy are getting cheaper, nuclear power – at least of the kind being promoted in Britain – is becoming more expensive. Every year the industry raises its demands, insisting on more lavish guarantees before it builds. The higher the cost, the weaker the argument in favour of the technology becomes.
I think the point might now have been reached at which attempts to build the favoured model (the European pressurised reactor) in the UK should be halted until the costs have been reassessed and, preferably, compared with the likely costs of integral fast reactors. There’s no point in assembling clunky third-generation power stations if fourth-generation technologies are cheaper and easier to build.
Many people will be delighted to read this gloomy assessment. Before you join them, please think about the consequences. Ten days ago, the Japanese government announced that it is abandoning its promise to cut the greenhouse gases the country produces by 25% by 2020. The reason it gave was the shutdown of many of its nuclear plants as a result of the Fukushima disaster. Nuclear power saved about a quarter of a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year in Japan: equivalent to just under half the UK’s emissions. Much of it will now be replaced by coal and liquefied gas.
Germany also decided to shut down its nuclear power plants after the Fukushima crisis, due to the imminent risk of tsunamis in Bavaria. Last year, as a result, its burning of “clean coal” – otherwise known as coal – rose by 5%. That was despite a massive cut in its exports of electricity to other European countries. One estimate suggests that by 2020, Germany will have produced an extra 300 million tonnes of CO2 as a result of its nuclear closure: equivalent to almost all the savings that will be made in the 27 member states as a result of the EU’s energy efficiency directive.
If the UK fails to replace its nuclear plants, which generate 22% of our electricity, the same thing will happen. Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy – which is essential if we’re to have any chance of meeting our climate change targets – is hard enough. Replacing fossil fuels and nuclear power with renewables is harder still. As thermal power plants perversely attract less opposition than wind turbines, the temptation to replace nuclear power with fossil fuels will be overwhelming. Abandoning a proven and reliable low-carbon technology as climate breakdown accelerates is a special form of madness.
Flawed and stalled as the nuclear clean-up plans may be, at least they exist. Neither the government nor the fossil fuel companies have any programme for cleaning up carbon dioxide. This waste is, in aggregate, orders of magnitude more dangerous than the materials produced by atomic energy plants, and even harder to make safe. It’s a choice of two evils, but one is much worse than the other.
I accept that for now, the facts are against me. Enjoy it if you will. But then step back a pace, and consider what it means.
A fully referenced version of this article can be found at monbiot.com