Wednesday, 28 May 2008

React for goodness sake!

Sorry I'm Late Reactor What's all the fuss about nuclear power?

There's not enough of it for one thing. As one of the pioneers in the field, Britain was among the first countries in the world to develop commercial nuclear power plants in the forties and fifties. Right up until the mid-80's, nuclear was seen as the way of the future for a UK that was powerful, independent and forward looking.

But by the time of the Chernobyl disaster, with environmental groups waging war on the industry and fossil fuel prices having stabilised after the 70's oil shortages, nuclear was starting to lose favour. Britain opened its last nuclear power station, Sizewell B, in 1994. But by then the appetite for nuclear power was all but dead. And New Labour was not too keen to give it the kiss of life.

Currently we have a handful of rapidly aging nuclear power stations generating less than a quarter of our electricity; all will be decommissioned within the next 20 years. Within 10 years our nuclear power generation capacity will have been halved. Over the time since we built Sizewell B, our North Sea oil reserves have all but dried up and our coal mining industry, thanks to the efforts of Thatcher, has vanished.

In contrast to the British story, nuclear energy now produces more than a third of the electricity in the European Union, its biggest single source of power.

Why did the British nuclear industry not grow to replace the fossil fuel depletion? Investment. Or rather, the abysmal, short-sighted lack of it.

With the privatisation of the Central Electricity Generating Board in the 90's came an effective end to state investment in the future of energy generation. Private energy companies found themselves with barrier-free markets, low oil, gas and coal costs and therefore no incentive to invest for the long term. Although nuclear fuel is cheap to produce, its capital cost is high. So without direct government tax investment for state-sponsored builds or generous subsidies for the private sector, nuclear was effectively abandoned.

It takes at least 5 years to commission a nuclear reactor. Governments operate with a political time horizon of, at best, 5 years. So while Gordon and Tony were raising a fortune in taxes over the last 11 years it would seem that (despite lip service being paid) they were never seriously contemplating the need to re-invest any of it in energy production.

It should not have come as a surprise that we are in an energy crisis now. The world has been at the mercy of OPEC for years, so a re-emergence of their money-grabbing antics can not have failed to have blipped on government radars. The Asian economies have been seeing double digit growth every year for the last two decades. Did nobody notice that as our industries vanished, as factories sprang up in India, Taiwan and China with impudent regularity, that these countries would come to dominate the demand for energy? When I was in manufacturing our two biggest costs were people and power. If your Chinese plant is cheap on labour you can spend more on and demand guys, supply and demand.

So we in the UK have been sleeping while the rest of the world moves on, and now we are paying the price. Nuclear is a long-term alternative and it should always have figured as a major part of our energy resource portfolio.

Yes, nuclear is not a godsend. It has its problems, and not everyone is so certain it's a good idea to build more reactors. There is a waste issue that has yet to be fully addressed. But you should not let your understanding of nuclear power generation from 20 years ago colour your judgement. Today's efficient reactors produce a fraction of the waste of their forebears. In fact we have probably already made most of the waste we ever will.

Detractors talk of leaving a legacy for our children, but what about the here and now? Consigning Britain to being a 4th-rate economy, dependent on the robbing sheiks of the Middle East or playing second fiddle to the Asian Tiger states is no gift to the next generation.

Naysayer Michael Meacher today queried the (lamentably late) surge of interest in nuclear power being driven by Gordon Brown, saying that having an abundance of nuclear-generated electricity would not help with the current oil crisis. Perhaps if electricity were cheaper than petrol we might all be driving battery-powered cars to work? Meacher is an anachronism. It's his kind of negativity that has helped get us into this sorry mess.

The Tories on the other hand, while broadly agreeing that nuclear is the way forward, have insisted that they would not spend government money on it. Wake up, please! The government should spend taxpayers' money for the benefit of guess who? The taxpayers! If the Conservatives can find a taxpayer not in need of affordable, sustainable power then I'll consume my headwear. (If the Tories are true to their word and can cut the benefits mountain from its current £340 billion per year, they can find plenty of money.)

Britain needs its independence. Not from Europe, but from Asia and the Middle East.

Of course nuclear is not the only solution, and all efforts should be made to kick-start our renewable power generation programmes. We've been pitiful at that too of course.

So nuclear is the strongest card we have. Yet even if we start now, with all the planning and legal wrangles to get through - let alone the design and building works - we'll be lucky to see any new reactors this side of 2020. At least a decade of energy impoverishment beckons.

So I say, go ahead Brown - start building nuclear plants. But why the hell didn't you start 11 years ago?

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