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The Nuclear Muddle impeding progress on the Critical Path to Cutting Greenhouse Gas Emissions

November 5, 2016 7:00 PM
By Steve Bolter in Challenge

The Nuclear Muddle impeding progress on the

Critical Path to Cutting Greenhouse Gas Emissions

(from Challenge Magazine November 2016)

The Liberal Democrats are working for a Greener World, a Stronger Economy and a Fairer Society.

Most Lib Dems would agree that only a green, environmentally sustainable, economy can be a strong economy in the long term, and thus be fair to following generations. The Green Lib Dems aim to make sure that our Party policies are consistent with this belief, yet even GLD members are divided on what those policies should be.

For some countering the accelerating rate of climate change is the principle priority, but others are prepared to make this secondary to running down nuclear electricity generation.

Their arguments, that nuclear is dangerous, have been countered by data showing it as safe as wind, and hundreds of times safer than fossil fuels.

They argued that nuclear fission technology is not sustainable; but neither are current renewables technologies. The important point is that nuclear and renewables can be sustained far longer than the technologies they are replacing.

Then they argued that nuclear was too expensive, using creative accounting which ignored the cost of the extra grid capacity, demand management, storage and backup, that would be needed for if renewables were to dominate the electricity supply.

When even this failed, they argued that turning a generator using a wind turbine (done in Ohio from 1888) or using a water turbine (done at Cragside, Northumberland, from 1878) are a new technologies deserving of subsidy, while using nuclear energy to make steam to turn a generator (first done in Idaho 1951, first done commercially in Cumbria, 1956) is old technology which should not be subsidised.

It was against this background that the 2012 / 2013 Zero Carbon Britain policy working group produced Liberal Democrat Policy Paper 109, which remains the Party's principal paper on energy policy.

The working party decided that the 2013 Autumn Federal Conference should be asked to decide between pro- and anti- statements on nuclear. The "pro nuclear" option included the words "without allowing any public subsidy for new build". A Federal Committee ruled that there could not be a separate vote on those words. The "pro nuclear" option was passed by a substantial majority. Never the less several senior Lib Dems, including MPs and MEPs continued to actively oppose nuclear electricity.

So much effort was put into debating whether or not to have replacement nuclear, and on what constituted public subsidy, there had been little discussion on what kind of nuclear plant we should have. Should we be replacing closing reactors with a similar number of new ones, or should we be going for fewer larger ones? Should we stick to conventional uranium reactors or should we include some Thorium Cycle reactors? Should we have new designs which push efficiency higher, or should we go for proven designs?

That autumn Ed Davey signed an agreement in principle with EDF for the construction of a European Pressurised water Reactor (EPR) at Hinkley Point.

Even after new doubts about the choice of the EPR, neither the Lib Dems, nor the Coalition Government, nor the following Conservative Government - announced a nuclear plan B.

At the 2016 Autumn Federal Conference there was an Emergency Motion calling for opposition to the construction of an EPR at Hinkley Point. The objection was supported by misleading claims, such as that there had been an increase in the cost of nuclear energy to consumers since strike prices were agreed in 2013. This is untrue. The strike price is unaltered! Their case relied heavily on the Lib Dem 'no public subsidy' policy.

The motion passed called for opposition to Hinkley Point in particular, not nuclear energy in general. However it suggested only renewables, as alternative sources.

Middle East problems, migration, the vote for the UK to leave the EU, party leadership changes and Trump, have occupied the media.

These events must not divert us from the consideration of energy and climate change matters: rather they make a robust, fact based, Lib Dem policy on energy matters, essential. We need to move away from doctrinaire, or emotional, responses to nuclear electricity and examine the role of both renewable and nuclear energy in a holistic approach to decarbonising the whole economy, not just electricity.

Previous generations of Britons used solar energy to grow food and timber. Solar energy stored in timber was used to heat homes. As the population increased this became unsustainable and Britons started using coal - solar energy stored locally in vegetation millennia ago. Now we import fossil fuels too.

Not only is the source unsustainable, the sink is too. The greenhouse gases released from fossil fuels are resulting in the climate changing at an alarming rate - one too fast for natural and human systems to adapt. Storms, floods, droughts, and temperature increases are already causing livelihood destruction and famine; which is driving mass migration and war.

In 2015, in Paris, the world agreed what needed to be done to avoid a climate catastrophe. Many countries have ratified the agreement. However imminent replacement of Obama, by Trump, who barely acknowledges the link between human activity and climate change, there is fear that the USA will not meet its obligations under the agreement, and that others will follow.

The UK commitment to the Paris agreement is as part of the EU. The size of the EU means that it can protect its members from unfair competition from countries breaking the Paris agreement. If Brexit detaches the economy from the EU, its ability to remain committed to its Paris 2015 and to resist trade from countries that refuse to do so, will be a measure of the Government's success.

Our island has a high population density. Nuclear energy production requires very little land, but renewable energy is diffuse and has to be collected over vast areas. There is intense competition for land for:- food growing, housing, industry, recreation, and collecting renewable energy. It is unwise to reject nuclear energy, especially where continuity of supply is important, and using renewables would require: additional generation, storage, back-up and grid capacity.

National Infrastructure Commission

W e need to optimise policy to produce a rapid fall in carbon dioxide emissions at minimum up-front and long term financial costs. We need nuclear and renewables, not nuclear or renewables.

The joint Imperial College, University of Cambridge report for the National Infrastructure Commission "Delivering Future Proof Infrastructure", February 2016 , Goran Strbac et al, states that the cost-critical mix for low carbon (50g/kWh) grid electricity by 2030 includes 20 GW of installed nuclear capacity for medium flexibility, or 15 GW of nuclear if we invest in a highly flexible system. If we do not replace some of our closing stations, in 2030 our nuclear generation capacity will be about to fall from 3.6 to 1.2 GW, leaving a shortfall of 14 GW on the lower figure. That means we need the equivalent of a dozen Sizewell Bs or just over four Hinkley Point Cs.

The high flexibility model also includes:- 43GWp of PV (equivalent to a solar farm, covering a 33km by 33km square of middle England); 47GWp of installed wind capacity (equivalent to over 20 thousand 130 metre high offshore wind turbines); and 50 GW of fossil fuel (17GW of capital intensive, efficient, base load plant and 33GWp of cheap plant low efficiency plant for peak use).

Only a quarter of primary energy is used for electricity production. The above electricity-only figures assume some increase in mains electricity use as we replace fossil fuel vehicles with electric ones and employ electric heat pumps etc., but we will need more low carbon energy in the longer term, to replace diesel, oil petrol and gas, for heating and transport. This could include using renewable electricity to generate hydrogen from water and digesting grass to produce methane, making even more demand on land.

Building enough new nuclear generation capacity to meet the optimum 15GW (or even 20 GW for the medium flexibility option) would not remove the need for more renewables. It would just mean that they would be used to replace fossil fuels, instead of to replace closing nuclear generation. (Further detail and references available under "Nuclear Muddle" on the GLD Website)

Steve Bolter, November 2016