If Britain is to stay an advanced and industrialised country with any level of proper civilisation, it needs a proper energy policy, with the planning to back it up. And it needs all the power sources it can find – including nuclear...
Britain needs a broad and balanced electricity generation capability – including nuclear power – if it is to stand any chance of avoiding energy blackouts. But successive governments have ducked the issue for decades.
Sizewell A (on left) and B (with dome) on the Suffolk Coast. Sizewell B is due to operate into the 2030s, but Sizewell A was taken out of service in 2006 and is being decommissioned.
Earlier this year the government published a series of papers – “Nuclear Industry Vision Statement”, “Long-Term Nuclear Strategy”, “UK’s Nuclear Future” and so on – presenting its and the nuclear industry’s perspective on what should happen. It’s a wish list for Britain’s nuclear industrial capacity over the next 40+ years.
Government thinking includes a series of proposals: safety; security of supply; a balanced energy supply mix; dealing with waste; exports and the market. The nuclear industry promises job creation, resurgent industrial exports and wealth creation.
All these issues need consideration. And yet the government is still avoiding its core responsibility to provide energy for Britain. That’s no surprise, given that its mantra for nuclear power is, “affordable, deliverable, value for money...no public funding” – the same formula it applies to all public service infrastructure build.
It sings the praises of the positive side of nuclear construction – being at the “top table” of nuclear nations, growth of high quality manufacturing industrial supply chains, job creation, wealth creation, export-led recovery, and so on. But all it can offer is the pure fiction of competition. The cartel-dominated “market” is primary.
Its Energy Market Reform strategy is the latest in the government’s attempts to argue that the privatisation of energy supply works. It promises affordability, delivery, value for money, etc – but rules that the control of construction, supply and distribution must stay in the hands of the energy cartels.
Every day that passes sees a sop here to wind farms, a sop there to renewables, a sop to decarbonisation, crocodile tears for consumer bills, science fiction-like solutions and so forth. Lip service is paid to clean coal technology, but coal is dead in Tory minds (and Labour’s too).
The gap widens
Every day that passes sees the gap between generating capacity and demand widening and the crunch getting nearer. The market is supposed to deliver investment running into hundreds of billions of pounds to build the new generation required but we never see it.
If the commitment to nuclear were real then it would be shown in practice. For years, though, government thinking – Labour and Conservative – was to manage nuclear’s rundown and closure, and then sort out waste management. Hence the conscious refusal to make a decision on renewal of nuclear stations during the past 20 years.
Now the government’s hand is being forced by the evidence of a generation shortfall between what we produce and what we can and must produce. It is being forced by the energy cartels knowing full well that public money will fund the construction, and that competition is effectively dead. There is no ‘market’ when those who build and run nuclear power stations are limited to half a dozen companies in the world.
The choices are stark: nuclear power currently produces 22 per cent of Britain’s energy. By 2023 all of our current nuclear stations will have been closed down. At the same time, as a result of the twinned madness of the EU’s Large Combustion Plant Directive and Britain’s Carbon Tax, coal-fired power stations will progressively be shut down, making us more and more dependent on gas-fired plants and the very intermittent power gained from renewable energy sources such as fantasy windmills, at just the time when the closure programme for ageing nuclear plants begins in earnest.
Only reliable sources of energy allow a nation to enjoy the fruits of civilisation. Britain’s energy supply industry mix – gas, coal, oil, renewables, nuclear etc have been perverted by privatisation and market driven ideology since the 1980s; the mind set in the energy industries is profit, not power for the people.
Unless we produce power from the full range of possibilities, including nuclear, the lights will go off. The posturing and pretence of the government and energy cartels is playing poker with the guarantee of energy supply in Britain. Now the people of Britain are going to have to force the issue.
Interrupt your power supply and everything will fall apart. No electricity – and vital aspects of everyday life immediately shut down including factories, hospitals, schools, trains, tubes, lifts, heating, treatment of sewage, television, street lighting – but much more as well. Power cuts will send us into a new dark age.
Emotion and facts
Very little discussion about nuclear power has been free of emotion. That’s understandable, but not pardonable. So here are some facts.
First, Britain’s nuclear industry in its sixth decade of operation has the best safety record of any energy sector provider. Modern nuclear power stations are not just designed to be safe – they are very safe.
Much has been made about the explosions at the Fukushima power station in Japan following the earthquake and tsunami, forgetting that there were two nuclear stations at Fukushima.
Fukushima 1 was 40 years old when it was hit by the earthquake. But it had a sister station, a decade newer. This withstood the quake and the tsunami, and is still producing power.
Nuclear power is a mature technology and has proven reliability. It has been developed over 50 years and the latest reactors are reliable, clean and efficient. Generating electricity by nuclear power is a round-the-clock operation and is not subject to the vagaries of wind, sun or tides. It can be fine-tuned to meet peak demand and will not let us down in the depths of winter.
Generating electricity by nuclear reactors does not produce carbon dioxide, the principal greenhouse gas. No wonder a number of keen environmentalists – such as George Monbiot and James Lovelock (inventor of the “Gaia” theory) – support nuclear power as part of the “green” solution to Britain’s power needs.
There is, of course, a hard core of “green” activists who believe that nuclear is anathema, and that anything is preferable to nuclear power – even rolling modern technological society back towards pre-industrial times. They will never be convinced by logic or facts, but they must be isolated and exposed. There is nothing progressive about opposing nuclear power in principle.
It will not be easy to create the nuclear generating industry that Britain requires. Decades of neglect have left devastating skill shortages. The workforce – for construction, engineering and management – is ageing. An estimated 70 per cent of those employed face retirement by 2025, a date very close to the present run-down date for the existing 16 ageing nuclear stations.
There is huge potential for new job creation. Along with associated industrial supply chains, there could be 40,000 to 60,000 new jobs on top of the estimated 40,000 employed in 2013. It is estimated that between 85 and 95 per cent of the supply chain provision could be sourced from British firms.
Yet nowhere in government rhetoric is there reference to these workers in the government’s view of nuclear power – leave alone to planning their long-term skills training and development. Tens of thousands of skilled engineering workers do not appear by magic overnight but must be trained, replenished, developed over decades.
Nuclear could also be at the heart of a huge export industry for Britain. Globally, the value of the projected new build of nuclear reactors stands at £930 billion, and rising. Add to this a global decommissioning market of an estimated £250 billion. As Britain leads in decommissioning skills, and the nuclear recycling industry is effectively based in Britain, a further raft of energy industry skills would open up huge opportunities for development.
So given the political will, there is abundant potential to provide the world with low carbon energy supply, release climate change threats and lift billions of people out of fuel and rural poverty.
But the political will is not present. Crucially, workers have absented themselves from a key question they cannot afford to shun – the question of power generation and power supply. Now we are being haunted by our error as the stakes get higher and the power cuts draw closer. Fundamental decisions must be taken soon. We need a strategy to take us through the next few decades.
We can’t spectate idly at our potential national demise. We live here, we are the nation, we must enforce – and speedily – the decisive actions to generate the levels of power necessary to sustain our economic and social life. The call to end the current lunacy must come from workers across the land. ■