Still no clear policy on nuclear energy

New Labour’s commitment to nuclear is half-hearted at best, and goes hand in hand with more policing of our energy use.

James Woudhuysen

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Topics Science & Tech

Things now look so gloomy in UK electricity supply that New Labour, in its dying months, appears to have rowed back from 12 years of diffidence about nuclear power. In well over 500 pages of National Policy Statements (NPSs), energy secretary Ed Miliband has spent more than 300 trying to streamline the planning of new nuclear reactors – to be built, in innovatory style, on 10 existing sites (1). His stance, however, shows all the usual ifs and buts. And the Tories’ reaction? Pretty much a deafening silence.

In recent years, New Labour has supported nuclear power like a rope supports a hanging man (2). Its priority has not been to build new energy supply in line with new economic growth, but to move people to cut back personal energy use and so engage in what the sinisterly named Behaviours Unit of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs calls ‘pro-environmental behaviours’ (3). New Labour’s idée fixe is not high energy, but low CO2 emissions. That being its main justification for nuclear power, it’s no surprise that other, reputedly safer paths to low CO2 will beat new reactors back into the ground.

In keeping with New Labour’s oh-so-democratic tradition of listening to the masses, Miliband’s NPSs were published as drafts for consultation. But just a few days before, the government-funded Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) gave this game away. Insisting that changes in individual consumption will produce larger cuts in CO2 than cleaning up the UK’s energy supply, WRAP looked forward to you and me ‘avoiding all edible food waste by 2050 (Best Practice)… [or]… fulfilling this intervention 20 years earlier by 2030 (Beyond Best Practice)’ (4). Then, after Miliband published his NPSs, WRAP announced that Britons are guilty of kitchen habits involving food that is ‘cooked, prepared or served too much’, or ‘not used in time’ (5). WRAP also proclaimed that microwaving cold coffee or tea is about five times better for the environment than making a fresh cup – though it added, reassuringly, that this admonition was ‘not about nagging people’ (6).

This is the cost-free, zero-engineering, authoritarian culture behind New Labour’s stated commitment to nuclear: not constructing additional electricity capacity, but dictating how you eat and drink.

We need to remember that, before this week’s apparent conversion to the nuclear cause, the government did not dissent from the Brussels Commission’s laughable goal of making demand for energy in the EU drop by 13 per cent over the period 2007-2020 (7). Indeed as late as the summer, Miliband vaguely averred that ‘by 2050 we may need to produce more electricity than we do today’ (8). Only now has he reluctantly concluded that, ‘having made good progress in building new [energy] infrastructure’ – that is, having completed no major new power stations since 2000 – Labour’s move to a low-carbon economy ‘could also mean that electricity demand increases in the longer term as we use more electricity for transport and domestic use such as heating buildings’ (9).

Well, that’s nice to know. Britain might need a bit more juice. So is that the argument for nuclear? Not at all. Rather, ‘failure to take account of the ability to develop new nuclear power stations significantly earlier than the end of 2025 will increase the risk that the UK is locked into higher CO2 emissions than would otherwise be necessary’. In other words, Miliband’s argument for nuclear power can only begin, and does begin, with the line that ‘Nuclear power is low carbon’. All subsequent arguments for nuclear – that it contributes to energy security, enhances generation diversity, is proven technology, etc – are subordinate to ‘the urgent need to decarbonise the economy’ (10).

For some time now, we have heard a lot about UK hedge funds. In keeping with the City hedging its bets, New Labour does the same. The nuclear NPS isn’t just late, and less than forthright: it is timid, pusillanimous, and knock-kneed. The government, it says, believes that ‘in principle’ new nuclear power should be ‘free to contribute as much as possible’ toward meeting the need for 25GW of new non-renewable capacity by 2020 (typically enough, New Labour still hopes to install 35GW of new renewable capacity by the same date – which is not so much a target as a pipedream). However, the nuclear NPS continues that ‘there can be no certainty that development consent on all sites listed in the NPS will be granted as issues may emerge once they are analysed in detail’ by the soon-to-be-established Infrastructure Planning Commission (11).

But what are these issues that may emerge? The most prominent – wait for it! – is… climate change. The 10 sites chosen by New Labour are on Britain’s coasts and estuaries. As a result, builders of new reactors must ‘in particular set out’ how they would deal with coastal erosion and increased risk from storm surge and rising sea levels. They must worry about the effects of higher temperatures in the UK, including higher temperatures of cooling water; and despite all the floods to come, they must also fret about an ‘increased risk of drought leading to a lack of available cooling water’ (12). Then what must also be considered is the risk of tsunamis, seismic risks, the proximity to civil aircraft movements, and the negative impact of reactors on biodiversity and on cultural heritage (13).

No wonder that the nuclear NPS hopes to have a working site ready for the geological disposal of nuclear waste only ‘by about 2040’. Despite the urgency of decarbonising British electricity supply, there is no urgency felt about dealing with waste, one of environmentalism’s principal arguments against nuclear power.

In the summer Miliband proclaimed that part of his job was to persuade British people to ‘take difficult decisions’ – not least, to pay more for their energy by 2020 (14). But any Conservative regime looks set to find nuclear a difficult decision. At the time of writing, no press release, nor shadow minister speech, has made a riposte to the NPS; there have just been one or two statements to the press. The Conservatives’ 53-page consultation paper on energy contains two paragraphs on nuclear, and four on nuclear waste (15).

At least the Liberal Democrats don’t mince words. New nuclear, Liberal Democrat energy secretary Simon Hughes burst out, would be ‘reckless’ (16). If the next parliament is a hung one, the Liberal Democrats can be relied upon to see their view carried through.

Perhaps, instead of all this torpor, we should look forward to sea-borne Russian nuclear reactors to be hauled up next to Britain’s major ports, so as to keep the lights on (17).

Reckless? Perhaps. But not as reckless as Labour’s dithering, or the Tories’ deafening hush.

James Woudhuysen is professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, Leicester. He is author, with Joe Kaplinsky, of Energise! A Future for Energy Innovation, published by Beautiful Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky criticised the myth that New Labour is pro-nuclear. In 2007, James Woudhuysen accused the then UK department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform of strangling generation schemes in red tape. Rob Johnston highlighted the lack of a UK windpower industry and exposed 10 myths about nuclear power. Tim Black talked about Ed Miliband’s response to environmentalist skin-flick The Age of Stupid and called Britain a world leader in dithering on the issue of nuclear power. Or read more at spiked issue Energy.

(1) Draft National Policy Statement for Nuclear Power Generation (EN-6), 9 November 2009

(2) Nuke the consultation – let’s have a debate!, by Joe Kaplinsky and James Woudhuysen; The myth that New Labour is pro-nuclear, by James Woudhuysen and Joe Kaplinsky

(3) A Framework for Pro-Environmental Behaviours, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Behaviours Unit, January 2008

(4) Meeting the UK climate change challenge: The contribution of resource efficiency, WRAP, Final report, 3 November 2009, p3

(5) Household Food and Drink Waste in the UK, WRAP, 9 November 2009, p23

(6) WRAP director of retail Richard Swannell, quoted in Harry Wallop, Reheat cold cups of tea, Government waste watchdog says, Daily Telegraph, 10 November 2009

(7) See The EU’s post-industrial revolution, by James Woudhuysen

(8) The UK Low Carbon Transition Plan: National Strategy for Climate & Energy, p52, my emphasis

(9) Draft National Policy Statement for Nuclear Power Generation (EN-6), 9 November 2009, pp10, 8

(10) Draft National Policy Statement for Nuclear Power Generation (EN-6), 9 November 2009, pp10-12

(11) Draft National Policy Statement for Nuclear Power Generation (EN-6), 9 November 2009, p13

(12) Draft National Policy Statement for Nuclear Power Generation (EN-6), 9 November 2009, p20

(13) Draft National Policy Statement for Nuclear Power Generation (EN-6), 9 November 2009, pp29-31

(14) Government maps low-carbon road, Today, 15 July 2009

(15) Conservatives.com

(16) New nuclear a reckless mistake says Hughes, Liberal Democrats, 9 November 2009

(17) Russians plan floating nuclear plants, New York Times, 9 July 2009.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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