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Why nuclear and renewable energy cannot co-exist

Our entire electricity market system is now being rigged to provide a wholly unjustifiable continuing subsidy to the nuclear industry, while doing a lot less than is required to promote renewables and absolutely nothing to put efficiency at the heart of that reform process.

Why the UK must choose renewables over nuclear: an answer to Monbiot by    26 July 2011, “……….Can nuclear and renewables not co-exist?   For me, there are four main reasons why co-existence has become a foolish pipedream.

1) The lobbying position of the nuclear industry itself  Until the middle of 2009, the nuclear industry’s public position was a “both/and” position – with room for both renewables and nuclear. Since then, however, nuclear industry leaders have become increasingly vocal in arguing that if the UK government persists with its target of generating 15% of energy from renewables by 2020 (which means at least 35% of our electricity from renewables), then the nuclear industry will suffer very severely.

Both EDF and E-ON are on the record in making this case with growing stridency. And I’m sure Monbiot’s sources inside Decc will have told him in no uncertain terms that what these companies say in public is a pale shadow of the virulently anti-renewables lobbying that they’re doing behind the scenes. How else could EDF hope to recoup the £12bn it’s already laid out to purchase nuclear sites here in the UK?

2) Financial opportunity costs  Nuclear power is the most capital-intensive of all supply options. With estimates ranging from £4bn to £5.5bn for a new nuclear reactor, there is a clear risk that other options will be frozen out by this level of capital commitment.

There will also be significant opportunity costs regarding energy efficiency – as well as renewables. Every billion that goes back to the nuclear industry is a billion that isn’t going into retro-fitting our hopelessly inefficient housing stock – and simultaneously sorting out the continuing scandal of extraordinarily high levels of fuel poverty here in the UK.

Sometimes Monbiot is naive. Does he really think a “both/and” world is available when the Treasury is imposing a ruthless cap both on direct payments from tax revenues and on levies taken from consumer bills?

3) Political opportunity costs    The Sustainable Development Commission’s 2006 report commented specifically on this:   “Were it to be decided to proceed with a new reactor programme, there is no doubt that this decision would command a substantial slice of political leadership. Political attention would shift, and in all likelihood undermine efforts to pursue a strategy based on energy efficiency, renewables and more CHP.”

The electricity market reforms announced recently provide ample evidence to that effect. Our entire electricity market system is now being rigged to provide a wholly unjustifiable continuing subsidy to the nuclear industry, while doing a lot less than is required to promote renewables and absolutely nothing to put efficiency at the heart of that reform process

4) Constraints in upgrading the grid   More and more industry specialists are concerned about what is sometimes called a “system clash” between a generation system based predominantly on a small number of nuclear reactors and large-scale gas or coal-fired power stations, and a system based on multiple renewable generators and more distributed local area networks. Greenpeace’s report (The Battle of the Grids) eloquently highlights just how problematic this already is in Europe, where it has become commonplace in a number of countries to switch off wind turbines during periods of plentiful electricity supply in order to give priority to nuclear and coal-fired plant.


The high-capital costs and the nature of nuclear reactors means you need to run them all the time for both economic and engineering reasons. If there are 16 GW of new nuclear, as the government proposes, preference will clearly be given to purchasing from this source.

In conclusion, Monbiot should know better than to take the nuclear industry’s “both/and” rhetoric at face value. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if he reads his own words as carefully as others do: “Power corrupts; nuclear power corrupts absolutely … nuclear operators worldwide have been repeatedly exposed as a bunch of arm-twisting, corner-cutting scumbags.” That’s powerful posturing. It’s as if he’s trying to cover up his own embarrassment at ending up as a pawn of the nuclear industry by being ruder about them (on a personal basis) than any anti-nuclear activist would think of being. I hope that strategy works for him; it certainly doesn’t for me.

Are renewables always better?

I believe the answer to that question, today, is a clear “yes”. I cannot guess what the situation might be in the future, and I’ve always supported the continuation of research into new nuclear technologies. It is indeed conceivable that at some stage in the future new reactor designs could prove to be so superior that we would be mad not to take advantage of such breakthroughs in the supply mix. We should continue to keep that door open.

However, I’ve heard so many promises of “better things to come” from the nuclear industry over the past 40 years that I attach very little significance to the current wave of similar promises.

Right now (and for at least the next decade I would argue) proven renewable technologies offer a much more secure supply-side strategy.

Monbiot knows as well as I do that 100% renewables (and geothermal) is where we need to get to eventually – so why not seek to get there just as soon as possible without yet another disastrous foray into today’s nuclear cul-de-sac?

There are two other reasons for always favouring renewables over nuclear. It seems to me to be all-but-inevitable that there will be attempts at a terrorist attack on some nuclear facility somewhere in the world at some stage over the next decade. Secondly, and very briefly, we have to address the issue of proliferation. As Tom Burke has put it: “Atoms cannot be made to work for peace without making them available for war”

If you are to exclude nuclear entirely, what should the mix of electricity generation in this country be?

As Monbiot is aware, there are a growing number of voices arguing that we can indeed provide almost all the energy we need from renewable resources. The report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (adopted by 194 governments on 9th May 2011) shows how we could get up to 80% of the energy we need from renewable energy sources……

July 28, 2011 - Posted by | politics, UK

1 Comment »

  1. […] we need them. Under this system, renewables could easily provide this base-load and could render redundant these high-cost, un-environmental gas and nuclear […]

    Pingback by BRITAIN’S FUTURE PROSPERITY REQUIRES REVOLUTION. A RENEWABLES REVOLUTION. | The Norwich Radical | December 14, 2016 | Reply

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