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.

The art of taxing carbon without taxing carbon

Before I talk about how the coalition have screwed up, I’ll talk about how the energy industry seems to be moving in the right direction. Despite there being limited progress in pricing carbon or achieving a low carbon economy. People in the energy industry seem to be acting as though there has been. I put this down to expectations.

The more and more closely with people in the energy sector, the more and more I begin to see expectations determining people’s behaviour. Every UK energy company has a smart metering team (that is mandated by law), but they are also dedicated to working out how to get people to use less energy (which isn’t).

Likewise, BP has invested in renewable energy research (although of course it hasn’t abandoned its profitable fossil fuel business). Other energy companies have made a move to low carbon generation and to reducing their customers’ energy consumption. The language executives use has even shifted. Find a speech from an energy company exec that doesn’t mention reducing emissions, you might be surprised how hard it is.

These actions won’t show up in policy discussions because the policies haven’t been implemented yet. So pessimism is to be expected. But when you look at what people are moving towards, it begins to look as though the expectations of more expensive carbon and cheaper renewables is affecting people’s behaviour. In an industry with such a long planning horizon I suppose this is to be expected, but I was surprised.

I suppose this is another of my hobby horses. Economics isn’t about choice. It is about expectations and contracts. Expecting higher prices, even if today’s prices are low, will impact your decisions. I think we can see some of this in the energy sector. I don’t want to be Panglossian, we are still probably screwed by climate change, but probably less screwed than people assume.