New Labour’s nuclear ambitions suffered a setback in August when a proposed deal to sell British Energy to EDF for £12 billion fell through. Brown, Hutton, Darling and co. say that new nuclear power plants are the only way to achieve "energy security" and reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and they are determined to provide the right incentives to EDF (or possibly another bidder, Centrica) to build and operate them. Surely these wise men have impartially analysed all the options and come up with the best solution to Britain’s energy needs?
Well, hardly impartially; the government is stuck with a 35% stake in British Energy after bailing out the nuclear industry when it was bankrupt. Hoping against the odds to stay in office, they need this money back to give them more room to manoeuvre as the election gets closer. British Energy’s eight existing nuclear power plants are near the end of their life and due to be decommissioned soon, but the land upon which they are situated offers prime sites for a potential investor in nuclear power. Besides, this is the preferred energy strategy of New Labour’s friends in big business. So the government is presenting "new nuclear" as the only viable option to address the projected shortfall in Britain’s energy supply, whether we want it or not.
The economics of nuclear power led to decisions in the 1970s and 1980s in most countries, including Britain, not to build new nuclear power facilities. When decommissioning and disposal of waste was taken into account, nuclear turned out to be far less cost-effective than rival energy sources and ended up being heavily subsidised out of our taxes and energy bills.
The cost of decommissioning Britain’s 20 worn-out reactors has reached £84 billion, according to official figures, and is still escalating. Nobody knows how much storing nuclear waste will cost, but it remains a hazard for thousands of years. Sellafield reprocessing facility is a site which holds at least 400 metric tons of decaying spent fuel, 1,200 cubic meters of radioactive sludge and 1,500 cubic meters of intermediate-level waste. Total bills at Sellafield are estimated at £3 billion per year.
Now the government says that the economics have changed, mainly because of the rising price of oil and gas and because of carbon trading, which attaches a cost to carbon dioxide emissions. They claim that nuclear power will pay its way, including the cost of decommissioning and "waste management" without any subsidy out of public funds.
The actual track record of nuclear energy, however, says different. The industry has been plagued with construction delays, cost overruns and long outages due to safety issues, all of which have driven costs up. The prospect of "clean electricity, too cheap to meter" never materialised. Instead, future generations are saddled with the costs of a failed experiment!
Life-threatening incidents like the 1957 Windscale reactor fire, the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island and the tragedy of Chernobyl, the faking of safety records at Sellafield, the fear of radiation-induced diseases like leukaemia and the ongoing problem of hazardous radioactive waste have all severely damaged the industry’s image, and rightly so. It is an industry shrouded in secrecy; if these are the incidents we know about, what else is going on?
In the Government’s 2003 energy review they had said that no new nuclear energy facilities would be built without the fullest public consultation. In order to manufacture a façade of popular consent, the government and the industry have gone on the offensive with a massive campaign of creeping propaganda in schools and in the media using the threat of catastrophic climate change to present nuclear energy as the lesser evil. In early 2007 they held a consultation exercise which was successfully challenged in the High Court by Greenpeace; the consultation was called "a sham" and "very misleading" by the judge. A new "consultation" was held which was also a sham; all the environmental organisations pulled out as it became yet another PR exercise for New Labour’s predetermined policy; this is also being legally challenged.
What they don’t tell you is that the maximum contribution nuclear energy could make to cutting carbon emissions would be just 4%. Greenhouse gas emissions don’t just come from electricity generation but also from heating and transport. Therefore a whole number of integrated measures are needed to resolve the problems of affordable, secure energy supplies and reducing carbon emissions. But these alternative solutions would be squeezed out by skewing the market in favour of nuclear energy.
These measures would include (among others) renewables such as wind and tidal energy; a programme of investment in energy conservation to improve the energy-efficiency of homes and other buildings; combined heat and power installations; greater investment in public transport to reduce emissions from cars. All these technologies are proven, cost less than the nuclear option and have a short lead-in time.
In contrast, the soonest new nuclear power plants could be supplying electricity would be 2018 (and this is assuming they break all records for planning and constructing such plants), so they won’t even bridge the "energy gap"!
What they call "consultation" is really lies, propaganda and spin. Don’t let them fool you. Say ‘no’ to nuclear power!