Nuclear Power can save us from climate change

I think the left and environmentalists need to embrace nuclear power. There are plans for EDF and British Gas to build four reactors, and it is likely that those would be the first of many; Hitachi, GDF Suez and Iberdrola are all interested in building new nuclear in the UK.

Why new nuclear? Well, I was initially a reluctant supporter, but when it comes to large scale, uninterrupted base load generation it is hard to beat nuclear. Plus, no carbon. Not none really, building things emits carbon, but near enough for it to be properly counted as a renewable fuel.

EDF have just announced they are planning on running their existing UK nuclear fleet for another 34 years (that’s across three plants, Hinkley Point, Hunterston and Sizewell). Increasing their life like this will do enough to reduce carbon emissions equivalent to removing all the cars from UK roads for nearly five years. It is about 340 million tonnes of carbon that won’t be emitted. That is just from running longer our existing plants – that’s a big plus for the planet and for people.

But, there are huge problems with nuclear power in Europe.

First of all, Sellafield, it is a mess. Honestly, it is even worse than you imagine. Look it up, the National Audit Office have a report and Wikipedia have some background. Building 30 sounds pretty fucked up especially. And I’ve heard some odd things about the Seagulls that live there – huge they are. However, we are better at dealing with waste now and things are today built so that it is easy to take them apart safely.

That brings us to building, which is the real problem. No Europeans have built Nuclear Power Plants to budget for years. France and Finland have both fucked up colossally. Like three times above cost and behind schedule. Ludicrously badly. However, despite this, all is not lost. The Japanese and Chinese have built ahead of schedule. They don’t have special Asian-aptitude powers, anybody can do it if the corrupt, incompetent, unproductive Chinese can.

So to the problems of nuclear, I would say that they are in the past or that they can be overcome. The promise of nuclear energy is in predictable energy and tons of it with tons of carbon. I think it is the best bet for decarbonising the economy and I think serious environmentalists need to get behind it.

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10 thoughts on “Nuclear Power can save us from climate change

  1. I agree, nuclear is one of the safest, “greenest” sources we have. I just wish we would get serious about developing Thorium-based reactors. Thorium can’t be used to build bombs, the reactors can’t melt-down, and the waste is a few orders of magnitude less.

  2. the thing I am not clear on is the price. obviously there would be some price above which nuclear is no longer the best option, and something like piping solar up from Africa, or whatever, would become preferable. I don’t have a good grasp of the total costs, including decommissioning, of nuclear versus the alternatives, and the industry’s track record of cost overruns is not encouraging.

    here are some sceptical articles on those lines

    and here’s one pouring cold water on dream of 4th gen nuclear tech

    all this said, there is an “option value” to keeping nuclear technological research alive, even if they might not justify their costs in themselves (you never know what they will eventually develop) and that means keeping operational nuke plants alive too, because that’s where many of the important lessons are to be learnt. So I think even those who doubt nuclear is right to rely on heavily ought to support keeping the dream alive, so to speak.

    1. New nuclear has major cost problems. It’s a total disaster in Europe. In China and Japan new plants have been built to schedule, but it has been terribly organised in Europe.

      Basically if you go over schedule it costs a fortune because it is so labour intensive building a power plant. In Finland you had Polish welders who didn’t get the level of scrutiny their work would meet which was small but added a delay, a few million euros here. In Finland and France both projects were begun before they finished their plans….its so stupid I don’t know what to say. That won’t happen again. Both projects got held up, had to back track, had regulators changing regs half way through. Loads of it is avoidable.

      In the UK, if EDF build four reactors, Horizon build six, NuGen build four, then they will end up being built on time and budget. We’ll get pretty damn good at it, and we get to learn from Areva’s mistakes in Europe and Hitachi’s successes in Asia. The first two or three plants…pfft. You wouldn’t get me investing, but there’s a major public good there in building expertise and supply chain.

      The option is alive and well. Rolls Royce have built 23 Pressurised Water Reactors in the UK in the last 40 years. For Submarines. We can build reactors to budget, we do all the time. It is just the scale and complexity of civil nuclear that makes it hard.

      Waste is harder to deal with. Cumbria bloody loves the nuclear industry. Sellafield’s old boss used to be like a Mafiosa King Pin round there dispensing gifts, opening shops, kissing babies…and they can’t decide if they want a deep repository there.

  3. It doesn’t matter a toss whether “the left and environmentalists … embrace nuclear power”, because nobody gives a fuck what we think anyway, certainly nobody involved in making these sorts of decisions. The fundamental problem is that the economics of it suck. Remember, it wasn’t protest that killed nuclear power in this country, it was privatisation. Also remember that all the overtures from companies eager to construct new nukes always come with 2 conditions attached – a guaranteed minimum price (usually for at least 25 years), and limits on legal liabilities.

    As for thorium… The claims made for it sound suspiciously similar to those made for other reactor technologies before anyone had actually built one. There remain serious engineering problems to be solved. If they were half as good as everyone who’s just read the Wikipedia article claims, everyone would be building them like there was no tomorrow.

    Now, if anybody wants to propose renationalisation so that we can actually take a strategic approach, I’m all ears… Until then, you might as well write to Santa for all the difference it’s going to make.

    1. I think the left has a really important role to place. Nuclear is a looooooooong term project. Sellafield won’t close until 2110ish. Plants planned now won’t be decommissioned and the land safe again for 70 years at a bare minimum.

      So having leftists and environmentalist shifting the edge of the overton window will help to make the environment more attractive for new build. If there are a million votes for Labour opposing nuclear then that makes it really difficult to build.

      1. I really don’t think you’re grasping the extent to which I think the politics are entirely irrelevant… Which is funny, since you’re the economist. Nobody – but nobody – likes the idea of new open cast coal mines, but they’re happening anyway, because the economics make sense. You could line up everybody from Prince Charles to Arthur Pendragon in favour of new nuclear, and it’s still not going to happen if it doesn’t look like a good investment. And it doesn’t look like a good investment – precisely because it’s a “looooooooong term project”. We live in a world of market uncertainty and quarterly results. Nobody is going to invest in a project which is massively capital-intensive, entirely front-loaded, and with a 20-year payback horizon, if they have any “better” alternatives, regardless of what the strategic picture looks like. They don’t give a shit about the strategic picture. They care about today’s stock price movements, this quarter’s results, and their annual bonus. Until you change that, it’s all wind. (Pun most definitely intended. There’s a reason people like building wind farms – they’re cheap, quick, and modular. You can see a return within months, and a half-finished wind farm still earns money.)

  4. Oh, and another thing… Nuclear can only reduce CO2 emissions if we actually stop digging up and burning fossil fuels. On the other hand, if (as seems rather more likely) we still dig them up, only to sell them to someone else rather than burning them ourselves – and at a slightly lower price to boot – then actually all we’ve done is made it cheaper to burn the same amount of carbon. Jevon’s paradox is a bitch.

    1. Nuclear for home, shale gas for foreigners? Maybe, more clean generation helps, and more expertise in building nuclear means more likely other countries follow.

      Even the Saudis are looking to build Nuclear power. It is an attractive power source.

      1. And what’s the difference between the Saudi electricity sector and ours? State control. What was the critical difference between France and the rest of Europe wrt their electricity market, at least until 2004? State control. When did we stop building nuclear power stations in the UK? When we gave up state control. (Except for the nuclear bits, which nobody wanted to buy at the time for some reason, possibly related to the way they haemorrhaged money like a torn femoral artery the size of the M25, and bits of which remain under state control to this very day.) Everywhere you look, the only people who build nuclear power stations are state-owned utilities. The private sector’s happy enough to pick up the contracts, provided they’re on suitably favourable terms, but they have absolutely no interest in financing them.

        Now, like I said, I’m not personally averse to the argument that long-term energy strategy is too important to leave to the market… But I don’t see any of the nuclear boosters actually stepping up to make that argument, and until they do, it’s all just pointless noise. The private electricity generation market has absolutely no interest in building nuclear reactors on the terms currently available, and you can’t make them.

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