It’s time the UK had some atomic ambition

Britain might soon face power cuts if it doesn’t invest in new energy generation - and, yes, that means embracing nuclear.

Joe Kaplinsky

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Topics Science & Tech

The boss of one of the major energy suppliers in the UK has called for an urgent push to increase supply capacity over the next few years. Volker Beckers, the new chief executive of RWE Npower, told The Sunday Times yesterday: ‘The country has to build two large plants or more every single year… This has never happened in Britain’s history, so there’s no time to lose.’ Beckers has a point.

It is widely recognised that the UK has failed to invest in energy infrastructure in the past few decades. Although the picture in the US and elsewhere is not so different, the UK’s performance in this area has been particularly bad. Many of the current stock of coal power stations are due to close in line with EU pollution regulations (unrelated to CO2 emissions) and various nuclear power stations are coming to the end of their useful lifetime. But while supply is falling, demand from consumers and industry is likely to rise, creating a sizeable gap between supply and demand.

One of the major barriers to renewing the UK’s energy infrastructure is the popularity of green ideas. The green alternative to new power plants is to ‘cut your carbon footprint’ through ‘lifestyle changes’, or to put it less euphemistically: use less energy. Since everything we do uses energy, this outlook could fairly be paraphrased as ‘live less’. If we want to live more, we’re going to need more energy.

The most energy-intensive industries are metals, chemicals, food and paper making, but every sector of the economy will need more energy to grow. If the UK plans to move away from its reliance on financial services – a relatively low user of energy – to promote other forms of wealth creation, we’re likely to need more energy for that, too. High-speed rail, which the current government is keen to promote, will also require us to generate more power to run the trains. But this is not simply a matter of powering existing industries. A plentiful supply of cheap energy opens up the possibility of totally new applications. Dubai’s plans for an air-conditioned beach is just one of the ambitious ideas that become possible in the context of large-scale and economical energy supply.

The problem is that in recent years, UK electricity investment has been dominated by short-termism. Since the 1990s, new supply has been dominated by gas-fired generation which is quick and cheap to build. Up to a point, that has been a success. But it is now clear that larger-scale investment is needed. Government policy has promoted the building of numerous windfarms both on and off shore. But instead of a long-term plan, which recognises that the wind industry will take time to achieve cheap reliable power, the government has invented fantastical targets seemingly on the principle that wind can magically solve all of our energy problems – which it cannot. Instead of pinning our hopes on wind, a technology that is still a long way from being mature, we should look at the opportunities that we are missing.

The biggest opportunity being missed is nuclear energy. In the West, with the exception of France, the nuclear industry has been stagnating since the 1970s. In India, Russia and especially China, nuclear energy is now undergoing rapid growth. But there is more to this than simply catching up with the East. The basic design of nuclear reactors has not changed much since they were first developed during and after the Second World War. There are many new possibilities waiting to be explored. For example, the ‘travelling wave reactor’, backed by Bill Gates, could turn what is now nuclear waste into fuel. The ‘pebble bed reactor’ is a modular design making deployment flexible and easy to expand. Other new designs could produce hydrogen as feedstock for the chemical industry to produce fertilisers, plastics and transport fuels for cars and aeroplanes. Investment can and must go hand-in-hand with innovation.

While fast-growing developing economies will no doubt begin work on more novel reactor designs soon, more developed economies such as Britain could be in a good position to take a lead right now, if they choose to do so. The starting point is for the government to take a lead in making the case for nuclear energy because the barriers to building nuclear power stations are as much political as economic. Political opposition to nuclear energy dates from the 1970s, as greens came to identify high technology as tainted, as symptomatic of human hubris. During the Cold War, the nuclear industry found a warm welcome in the corridors of power through its relationship with nuclear weapons, but this did little to answer criticisms that civilian nuclear technology was intrinsically destructive and dangerous.

With the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, confusion began to set in. When the Tory government privatised the electricity industry in 1995, nuclear generation was kept in government ownership; the capitalists didn’t want it and the government literally didn’t know how to sell it. In 1997, months before the General Election that brought New Labour to power, the then secretary of state for the environment, John Gummer – in a triumph of precautionary reasoning – refused planning permission to a laboratory designed to investigate the possibility of a nuclear waste repository. Gummer’s decision threw industry plans into chaos.

For the past 13 years, New Labour policy on nuclear energy has consisted of dithering, covered up by endless consultations. In an area where clear political support was needed, this indecision has proved fatal to the prospect of new power stations. The latest round of consultation followed on from a White Paper in January 2008. The government produced a draft National Policy Statement which identified 11 sites as ‘potentially suitable’ for new nuclear power stations. This was put out to consultation, which closed on 22 February 2010, more than two years after the White Paper. A final statement is promised for later in 2010. Given that elections are now perversely seen as a reason to avoid controversial debate, it is unclear when this statement will appear.

Perhaps most notable is that even the 11 ‘potentially suitable’ sites are all within the grounds of existing nuclear stations. The highest aspiration seems to be to sneak through some direct replacements for existing stations, perhaps without anyone noticing too much. The idea of building bigger and better is considered politically untenable, even by proponents of nuclear power.

Yet there is a good case to be made for genuine nuclear expansion. As noted above there is plenty of opportunity for innovation in nuclear. Not only does the UK need to replace existing infrastructure and meet future demand, but there are potentially lucrative spin-offs, too. For example, increasing interest in international electricity grids – a development that should be encouraged – could provide opportunities for the export of electricity, so that nuclear power could help with the UK’s balance of payments as well as supplying the country with the electricity it needs.

Moreover, a period of development and innovation will undoubtedly have spin-offs for the wider economy. For example, the isotope technetium-99m is used in millions of medical imaging procedures each year. The world’s leading sources are Canada’s National Research Universal reactor which began operation in 1957 and the High Flux Reactor in the Netherlands that began operation in 1962. It is understandable that such aging facilities are increasingly shut down for maintenance, leading to a worldwide shortage of technetium, one which is now beginning to have an effect on patient care. It is inexcusable that construction of replacement facilities has been blocked by concerns over safety and proliferation.

Nuclear reactors are also used to produce beams of neutrons that are used across fields of scientific research, from liquid crystals to magnetism and archeology. The economic benefits of scientific research are often talked up today (even if real investment is less consistent). It is less often appreciated that industrial development provides new tools for scientific research which can, in turn, feed back into useful technologies. Investment in nuclear energy reactors could enable, and go hand-in-hand with, research reactors.

The wider benefits of nuclear energy are not incidental. Like the modern energy system that powers it, high technology engineering opens up new ways to shape the natural world around us, to see it in new ways and to explore new possibilities. For all these reasons, it’s time the UK government stopped dithering and commited itself to building new nuclear power stations as soon as possible.

Joe Kaplinsky is the author, together with James Woudhuysen, of Energise! A future for energy innovation (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Rob Johnston outlined 10 myths about nuclear power and said that the answer to our energy problems is not blowing in the wind. Joe Kaplinsky and James Woudhuysen argued that the UK government’s consultation on nuclear power focused on changing our behaviour. Joe Kaplinsky demanded that the government put a positive case for nuclear power. As part of spiked‘s ‘Future of Energy’ debate, Malcolm Grimston argued that nuclear was the only proven, low-carbon technology. Or read more at spiked issue Energy.

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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