The new nuclear renaissance – an easy decision but…

John Hutton is Secretary of State for Business Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. By training he is a lawyer, but he now is in charge of Energy for the United Kingdom. His problem is to set out an energy policy that will provide the nation over the long term with energy as cheaply and as low carbon as possible.  

This is a real hard problem because there is a natural conflict between cheap energy and benign energy that all the grandiose statements of intent cannot hide. Energy is at the heart of all economies and as such has strategic importance of equal rank with the economy, the armed services and the legal system. I am surprised that our Energy Minister, Mr Malcolm Wicks, is not considered as doing an important enough job to warrant a cabinet position. If you get energy policy wrong then, one way or another, future generations will curse you, and sometimes much sooner than anyone realises.  

Mr Hutton has reached the view, previously rejected by his party, that nuclear energy is the answer. Until recently there was the policy on nuclear power was to ignore it; we generate around 20% of our electricity (less than 10% of our overall energy requirements from 23 nuclear power stations which are aging and which will take ten or so years to replace.Mr Hutton now wants to replace those reactors and expand them.

Mr Hutton’s call, then, is for England and Wales to be “the gateway to a new nuclear renaissance across Europe” and this renaissance will generate what Mr Hutton says will be significantly more electricity than is generated at present. He is calling for £20 billion to be invested in this renaissance, but that figure does not include the decommissioning costs which will follow the end of the renaissance.

Mr Hutton considers nuclear to be low carbon although, as I have expressed in other posts, it is not as low carbon as it seems and we will somehow have to secure long term supplies of cheap uranium that is not mined in a way that creates more carbon than it saves as a fuel. There is only 70 years supply of this kind of uranium at the present rate of consumption and if other countries follow the lead that Mr Hutton expresses he wishes to provide the supply will probably not last anywhere near that long.

At a stroke Mr Hutton dismisses problems about disposing of nuclear waste, saying that it is not about how it should be disposed of but it is about where it should go. From that comment I deduce that he apparently has solved the problem of how to safely store huge quantities of radioactive waste for the next ten thousand years.

I would like to know how.

Mr Hutton clearly expects communities across the country to oppose their own back yards as nuclear dumping grounds. The solution is simple; if the waste is so safe then why not store it deep in the London clay underneath the Houses of Parliament, where the security is the best in the nation and where it will be unlikely to be forgotten in ten thousand years time? 

Political parties not in power issue different caveats. The Scottish National Party says that no way will they permit reactors in Scotland and I imagine that the Scottish electorate will support them.

The Conservatives are in favour, but rather spike Mr Hutton cannon by saying that energy policy must not allow for nuclear energy to be subsidised. Of course that it a trap for Mr Hutton because every developed country has subsidised its energy at some stage because of its strategic importance, and many still do. The most obvious form of subsidy given to energy is the way in which energy does not pay for the pollution it creates, and this is a kind of public subsidy.

Many EU countries go further and refuse to permit their energy providers to be subject to private control or cross border, such is the importance placed on it.

The Liberal Democrats think that there should be no more nuclear power stations. They fear that it will be more expensive than everyone expects and that instead of investing in an old fashioned technology we should be developing renewables.

I have some sympathy with this; £20 billion buys you a lot of renewables from large tidal barrages to microgeneration such as solar panels which would provide energy independence, reliable energy and lower carbon energy in a much safer way than nuclear power.

I also think that Mr Hutton has rather dug a hole for himself by claiming that nuclear power is an area in which the United Kingdom would lead. Will he then support every other nation following our lead, from Zimbabwe to North Korea, from China to Iran, or from Venezuela to the Ukraine? I doubt it.

We also must conclude that the present policy is that nuclear power is safe in the hands of the multinationals, but not in the hands of some nations. It is a concept that causes pause for thought.

Finally I come back to the strategic importance of energy and of imposing a cohesive energy policy which takes a pragmatic look at what we need but also takes into account long term harm. It is not easy but in taking the nuclear option Mr Hutton is making an easy short term decision which others may rue.



6 Responses

  1. Very interesting… clearly outlines a complex issue and its consequences; refreshing.

  2. Thank you


  3. If only all lawyers who become politicians could display such foresight. Unfortunately as you rightly point out there is a culture of think about the present rather than the future.

  4. And we reward the politicans for thinking about the present, not the future

  5. Nuclear could wipe out chunks of the UK. I think hydro electric in unhabited areas would be safer.

  6. I think I am reasonably assured that the nuclear will be safe to operate, although the effects of an accident are to horible to contemplate in a small island like ours.

    There are not many sites suitable for hydro, so it’s back to renewables for me in microgeneration.

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