Going nuclear?

Nuclear power has become an increasingly hot topic over the last two years, with positions shifting all over the place. A number of dyed-in-the-wool Greens have recently become converts, including George Monbiot, Mark Lynas  and Stewart Brand.  Not surprisingly, longstanding critics of environmentalists The Breakthrough Institute have been in hot debate on the topic in the US. And of course events at Fukushima have prompted lots of furious exchanges, including this from Jeremy Leggett and this from John Vidal.

Political Climate dips its toe into these stormy waters with some trepidation (which may be surprising given that we have been accused recently of being smug!). So what I offer here is in the spirit of a thought experiment. Given that there is a lot of uncertainty around the future of the  nuclear “renaissance”, there may still be a bit of time for this kind of reflection.

There are a lot of issues in the nuclear question – how low carbon is it, how much does it really cost, what do you do about the waste, how long will the uranium last, does that matter etc. I am not an expert on any of those things. My approach is based on two simple things that I think are true and are the most important aspects of nuclear.

The first is that it is pretty low carbon, no matter which way you cut it, and we do need low carbon. Nuclear isn’t zero-carbon, and it isn’t renewable, but I’ve seen the figures and I’m convinced.

The second is that you can’t trust the nuclear industry. Accusations of cover-ups on radiation leaks and accidents abound – TEPCO’s history before Fukushima being only the most recent example to hit the headlines. Parts of the industry have such bad management of waste that they have been described as “shambolic”. They aren’t transparent on costs. They have sought to undermine renewables.

So a question worth thinking about is: could you get the benefits of nuclear power without the drawbacks of the nuclear industry?

One obvious answer (to old social democrats at least!) might be to bring nuclear under government control. But  that history isn’t particularly happy either. It was, after all, the chair of a government commission who told us that nuclear electricity would be “too cheap to meter”, and a government that covered up a fire at the Windscale reactor (now Sellafield) in 1957. It was also a government (albeit a really crap one) that produced Chernobyl.

So it comes down to a matter of trust – if you can’t trust nuclear to the private sector and you can’t trust it to the government, who can you trust it to?

One answer, and my modest proposal, might be to trust it to an  independent public body, a Nuclear Foundation if you like, perhaps accountable to Parliament.

Both private sector companies and the government have incentives to lie about nuclear. Companies want to sell their technologies and gain subsidies for their electricity output. Governments don’t want to admit to investment mistakes, and fear the political backlash on the waste issue and on accidents. In both sets of institutions, nuclear has built up its own culture, attractive especially to engineers, who love the complex ‘kit’ and the impressive science. What we need is to get the decisions on investment, the management of accidents and the waste question out of the hands of these people and into the hands of a body that has no vested interests.

What kind of a body would this be? One which had independent technological and accounting expertise (or could draw on it). One which had on it representatives of electricity consumers, of the communities in which power stations are located and where waste might be buried, and of environmental groups (to give it credibility with the wider public). One of which anyone with the faintest whiff of an association with a conflict of interest would not be allowed within 500 miles.

Draconian laws would require any company considering building, building or operating a nuclear plant to give full and continuous information to this body, which would be able to shut it down if it took the view it should. Such a body would also lead a process by which society at large would decide how to get rid of the waste we’ve inherited, and any more generated in the future. CORWM was supposed to do that but it only had advisory powers.

At this point it’s worth reflecting on the economic consequences of this idea. Companies would hate it, but their financing banks would hate it even more, as it raises political risk. The cost of capital would be higher, and so would the price of the electricity resulting. Society as a whole would have to decide that it was a price worth paying for the better governance of ther technology.

A final thought. Why on earth would any government agree to this? Well, if a government was genuinely committed to doing something about emissions (suppose, for the sake of argument, that it said it was going to be the greenest government ever) then it would recognise that the public are not enthusiastic about nuclear power (probably even less so after Fukushima), that this is a lot to do with perceptions of nuclear waste and safety, that trust of the industry is very low, and that anything they could do to improve the governance of such an energy source would be a good idea.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Going nuclear?

  1. FYI: I can’t comment on the idea of a neutral body directly, but one problem in the whole nuclear discussion, pro and con, is that it generally is among people who have never worked in the nuclear industry. (Let’s not count spokesmen, please.) The inside of an atomic fun factory is very different than what is commonly perceived, and better decisions will be made if the real world of nuclear is better understood.

    I’ve worked in the US nuclear industry over two decades. My novel “Rad Decision” provides a portrait of this strange world and culminates in an event very similar to the Japanese tragedy. (Same reactor type, same initial problem – a station blackout with scram.) Readers report the book is an excellent source of perspective for the lay person. The novel is free online at the moment at http://RadDecision.blogspot.com . (No adverts, nobody makes money off this site.)

    Unfortunately, my media presence consists of this little-known book and website, so I’m not an acknowledged “expert”. I just do the nuclear stuff for a living. And I think I have explained it well in a non-yawn-producing manner.

    I believe there isn’t a perfect energy solution – just options – each with their good and bad points. And we’ll make better choices about our future if we first understand our energy present.

  2. Good post.

    I have been thinking a little about timeframes and governance when it comes to nuclear. Your idea for an independent nuclear body seems sensible, but are we really willing to bet that political institutions will outlive waste? Our relatively stable systems of governance have only existed for a short period of time and will undoubtedly change in many ways over the coming years. It’s not too pessimistic to assume that conflicts over resources will see some states breakdown. How would waste management continue in such a framework?

    Nuclear requires incredible confidence in the future, which makes me pretty nervous given the very mess we find ourselves in was caused by our inability to properly value the future.

  3. Roy Tindle

    Matthew, you quoted carbon emissions figures relating to nuclear power by linking to an paper that was published in Energy Policy in 2008. I suggest that you read a later paper, from the same journal, by Jacobson & Delucchi but published rather later, at the end of last year. The paper is entitled:

    Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power.

    The title is self explanatory and it suggests that renewable energy could satisfy our need for energy by 2050. The nuclear option has many problems, some of which you mentioned: others include a very long build period. Look at Olkiluoto, in Finland. The licence application for a third reactor was made in 2000 and the reactor should have been commissioned by 2009. There have been problems regarding safety, long before completion, and commissioning is now set for 2013 with the project 50% over budget. A lot of wind turbines could have been put in place in that period, and for a lot less money.

    Nuclear is baseload, that is it provides electricity at a fairly constant rate. It is not something that can be started and stopped at will. Do you remember night storage heaters? Their installation was to soak up electricity from our nuclear generating fleet, because of it’s relative inflexibility. Renewables and nuclear do not work well together because of this inflexibility when wind speed is low and the sun isn’t shining. Jacobson and Delucchi suggest high voltage direct current grids (HVDC) to provide links across the world and, of course, electricity use waste reduction.

    Does it make sense to invest in two generating systems that don’t work well together? If not, is it not more sensible to opt for that which, when it has failed, has failed somewhat catastrophically – Windscale, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukishima?

    Perhaps the the two problems with nuclear are that we are not good at second guessing geological disaster and fail safe systems have a habit of not failing safely. The latter derives from many causes, bad design, poor construction and maintenance, inadequately trained staff and even people trying rather stupid experiments. Ultimately, the failing component is the human one and, as I regularly use the Jubilee Line, I recognise that this element of failure is all but inevitable.

    If you cannot easily access Jacobson and Delucchi’s article, I have a copy given me by Mark Delucchi and can email it to you.

  4. For me, there are two major problems with nuclear power. Firstly, the necessary security around nuclear plants undermines civil liberties to the point that the price seems to me too high to pay. The powers vested in the secret private army protecting Britain’s nuclear power stations were exposed by Tony Benn in the late 1970s, and, while such erosion of our liberties now seems routine, I would like to struggle against that rather than contribute to it. It is irrelevant whether it is a private company, a government or an independent trust ‘in control’ – all require unacceptably high levels of security in order to protect us from someone threatening nuclear annihilation.
    The other problem is waste disposal. No symbol of warning has ever been invented that we can guarantee will be universally understood by human cultures for thousands of years to come. Even the skull has been used as a positive symbol by some societies. So even were it possible to find a safe means of disposal, it seems to me impossible to find a permanently safe means of disposal.

    In addition, there’s a third problem that I don’t really know much about – the supply of uranium and the geopolitics/ work conditions/carbon costs involved in its extraction. But I suspect this problem is a lot nastier, messier and potentially geopolitically dangerous than is normally recognised.

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