Environmentalists support nuclear?

| 1st April 2009
Bolgs and Comments
Four green travellers have lost their way on the road to Damascus. Only renewables have the answers to our energy predicament.
Renewables have been demonstrably suppressed and undermined for years now by the nuclear lobby.

There are now two ways an environmentalist can get his face on the front page of a national newspaper, it seems. The first involves major criminal activity, and the second involves a Damascene ‘conversion’ in support of nuclear power.

On 23 February, Chris Goodall, Mark Lynas, Stephen Tindale and Chris Smith took the second route. ‘Nuclear power? Yes please…’ read the banner headline, with the gloating subhead:  Leading greens join forces in a major U-turn’. The article informed us that the quartet’s conversion was down to the ‘urgent’ need to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Urgent indeed is that need. The first in a long list of problems with their conversion is that ‘urgent’ and ‘nuclear’ are not words that sit comfortably close to each other. During 2008, captains of the nuclear industry acknowledged that they cannot build and bring on-stream the next generation of power plants in less than 10 years. That simply isn’t fast enough to make a difference in serious efforts to combat our clear-and-present climate-change danger. In 2018, new plants eventually coming on-stream would be replacing a bare minority of the 429 nuclear reactors active in the world today, many of which are already near or past their supposed decommissioning dates as things stand.

The nuclear industry is also quite probably being over-optimistic, a trait in which it has specialised during its half-century history. The first European nuclear reactor to be given the go-ahead in 10 years was Finland’s Olkiluoto 3, in 2002. This is a Generation III-plus European Pressurised Water Reactor (EPR), a modified and larger (in terms of output) version of the Generation III pressurized water reactors common throughout France.

The Finnish plant had been projected to complete in 2009 on a budget of €3.2 billion. Completion is now estimated not earlier than 2012, and the station is €2.2 billion over budget. This could increase as operator TVO seeks compensation against Areva, the vendor, for the delays.

Another Generation III-plus EPR reactor, at Flammanville in France – the first to be built in the country for 15 years – is also in trouble. It is currently 20 per cent over budget. Meanwhile advocates of further French nuclear expansion await the results of a French government programme to test the groundwater under all 58 French nuclear reactors, after a recent spate of radiation leaks. Such setbacks may not be surprising. The nuclear industry has a major skills shortfall because of the long period it has spent in enforced abeyance since Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

Even if it could make a major difference in greenhouse gas emissions reductions in the next two decades, the nuclear industry hasn’t yet found a way to deal with its radioactive wastes, after decades of effort. Efforts by government to help it get round this inconvenient truth require hidden subsidies that would effectively be blank cheques extending far into the future. To commit to such subsidies would be to take vital resources from the genuine short-leadtime technologies.

There is only so much capital that can go towards energy, given all the other calls on governmental, corporate and household budgets, and within the energy budgets only so much can go to each energy technology. This is especially so in a recession. There should be no mistaking the choices involved here. Channelling billions of dollars preferentially to nuclear removes billions from energy conservation, energy efficiency and renewables. This unstated competition is why many nuclear supporters in and around Whitehall have tried for so long to hold renewable energy back.

Apart from the evidence of my own eyes – as a former member of the Government’s Renewables Advisory Board – I have heard a former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry say as much  myself.

Then there is the proliferation problem. If we renuclearise in the West, what chance do we have of holding back aggressive nuclear programmes in states where enraged people dream of terrorist weapons far more terrifying than fuel-laden airliners? The Pakistani nuclear smuggling ring shows quite clearly what we can expect down that road. We greatly enhance the risk of losing cities to suitcase bombs.

The ‘new Nuclear Four’ are good people, with solid records as environmentalists. Though many people will find it difficult not to think of their conversion as betrayal, we can be sure it is rooted in genuine desperation about climate change. That being the case, I wonder how they would feel the day the first government memo is leaked showing that a renewables or energy services project is to be cancelled because the nuclear budget needs the cash?

What will be less easy to forgive will be any effort by the Nuclear Four to join the nuclear lobby’s sniping at renewables and energy efficiency. Chris Goodall is already prone to this. In an op-ed in the Independent, he asserts, for example, that ‘solar photovoltaic panels on residential houses will only ever make a tiny contribution to our overall energy supply’.

‘Will’ is a big word. The truth is that with maximal energy efficiency, solar photovoltaic panels (and tiles, and slates, and cladding…) can make a major contribution to our energy supply. I know this because I lived for more than a year in a house that generated more solar electricity than the householders consumed, with constant occupancy. The Government is beginning belatedly to appreciate the potential of photovoltaics, because its recent Low-Carbon Buildings consultation identifies energy-efficient photovoltaics as the cheapest technology combination for reaching the first step in its routemap to a target of zero carbon in all new homes by 2016.

Solar photovoltaics is just one member of the renewables family, of course. This family, broad and deep as it is in terms of potential, has been demonstrably suppressed and undermined for years now by the nuclear lobby. With the conversion of the Nuclear Four, it has now been undermined a little more.

Jeremy Leggett is founder-chairman of Solarcentury and SolarAid, and the author of The Carbon War and Half Gone.

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