Lies, damned lies, and energy statistics - why nuclear is so much less than it claims to be

Sellafield, where the Nugen consortium wants to build three AP1000 nuclear reactors on the adjacent 'Moorside' site. Photo: Pharma Mike via Flickr (CC BY-ND).
Sellafield, where the Nugen consortium wants to build three AP1000 nuclear reactors on the adjacent 'Moorside' site. Photo: Pharma Mike via Flickr (CC BY-ND).
It's odd how often the contribution of nuclear energy is overstated, writes Neil Crumpton, by mixing up 'energy' and 'electricity', while a similar trick to understates the importance of renewables like wind and solar. Even odder is how the mistake always seems to go the same way, to make nuclear look bigger than it really is, and renewables smaller. Welcome to the nuclear 'X factor'!
The electricity-energy mix-up has made nuclear look bigger than it is. I have never seen the error work the other way, under-reporting the percentage contribution of a nuclear power station or programme.

What percentage of UK energy demand do you think is generated by the UK's nuclear power stations?

And what percentage of global energy demand do you think is generated by nuclear reactors worldwide?

The first part of the question above should now be occupying the minds of Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the Infrastructure Planning Committee (IPC).

Why? Because in April the proposers of a new nuclear power station at Moorside near Sellafield, put out an advertorial in all Cumbrian newspapers stating that the station would provide about "7% of the UK's energy requirement".

The company, NuGen, issued its first consultation newsletter on 8th April which likewise stated that the station would be capable of "providing approximately 7% of the UK's current energy requirement." [1]

The advertorial and newsletter had been timed to herald the start of a statutory public consultation process, now under way, about the proposed massive nuclear station which would have over three times the generating capacity of most existing UK nuclear stations.

So far so wrong. The company had printed the word 'energy' when the correct wording to match the figure should have been 'electricity'. The Moorside leviathan would probably supply around 7% (in the 2030's) of the UK's post-2030 rising electricity demand [2]. However, the station would supply about 2% of future UK energy demand [3].

NuGen's information was out by an 'X factor' of about 3.5, bigging up the strategic importance of the scheme. Within days, a group opposing the development wrote a complaint to the ASA [4].

The error that keeps on being repeated - is it more than just ignorance?

Yet does such an apparently simple wording mix-up matter ? Indeed, one regional newspaper which reported on the ASA complaint included a statement by NuGen which rightly referred to '7% of current electricity' calling it a 'clarification' (though surely such a revision should be called a correction) [5].

NuGen issued a second newsletter, dated 28th April, which had corrected the error stating '7% of the UK's future electricity requirement' [6].

So, it could be argued that, as far as the ASA is concerned, the error was a one-off typo with no lasting consequential effect considering the quickly clarified (corrected) response.

It could also be argued, as far as the IPC is concerned, that the error related to a strategic point which would not have a direct bearing on the local or regional planning issues which are the focus of the statutory public consultation process for such a strategically-agreed Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project (NSIP).

That said, transmitting even 7% of the nation's electricity down one long transmission line spur (perhaps over 10% at night), would have very strategic implications.

However, this electricity-energy percentage mixup is far from an isolated incident. As an energy campaigner since the 1990s I have noticed this very error reoccuring in the media and in other information sources with alarming if not chilling frequency. The Moorside advertorial is the latest incidence of a wording mixup that has been highly advantageous to the nuclear industry.

The electricity-energy mix-up has made nuclear look bigger than it is. I have never seen the error work the other way, under-reporting the percentage contribution of a nuclear power station or programme.

That does matter, considering that the £ multi-hundred billion nuclear industry and UK political parties are promoting nuclear power as playing a key and crucial role in providing national and global energy security and avoiding dangerous climate change.

Tony Blair's (and his officials') tin ears

It is possible that PM Tony Blair or brain-faded officials were caught out by this electricity-energy mix-up at an EU Summit in March 2007.

The PM had signed the UK up to the EU's 20% renewable energy by 2020 agreement possibly by mistake according to speculation by then Chief Scientific Advisor Sir David King [7]. That was my first thought on hearing the news not least because the 2003 UK Energy White Paper had a 20% renewable electricity by 2020 target [8].

Following subsequent negotiations (damage limitation) by civil servants and ministers the UK agreed to a still quite stretching share of 15% renewable energy by 2020 (15% of final energy demand implied over 30% renewable electricity). Some civil servants may well have been trying to get out of that commitment ever since.

Blair's officials should have been alert to the word trap. In December 2005 Friends of the Earth Cymru had submitted written evidence to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee which stated that nuclear stations supplied just 3.2% of UK energy in 2004 [9].

In 2006 I worked out UK nuclear output as a percentage of final energy demand, 3.6% in 2005, had it confirmed by the Government's 'DUKES' energy-statistics team, and had set about raising media awareness at every opportunity.

By July 2006 the Guardian was mentioning nuclear's 3.6% energy contribution [10]. Yet, the May 2007 Energy White Paper stated that 'Nuclear power currently accounts for approximately 18% of our electricity generation and 7.5% of total UK energy supplies.' [11]

Fellow campaigners in Greenpeace weighed in pointing out nuclear's 3.6% energy contribution in their response to the paper [12]. But officials were still not listening. In a major speech on the environment to the Foreign Press Association on 19th November 2007 Gordon Brown relayed globally 'At present around 9 percent of total energy in Britain is from low carbon sources: 2% from renewables, and 7.5% from nuclear.' [13]

The primary energy loophole - used by DECC to overstate nuclear energy importance

Within days the 7.5% figure was questioned by Dai Davies MP. In a written response by energy secretary Malcolm Wicks the 7.5% figure was explained as a 'primary energy' comparison and it was followed by a comparison of nuclear output to final energy of, wait for it, 3.5% [14].

I met Mr Wicks soon after and raised the issue again. Was it worth the effort? Well, he became the PM's special representative on international energy issues in 2008. Sadly, he died in 2012.

Why such a difference between a 'primary energy' and 'final energy' comparison. The primary energy comparison compares the energy content of the uranium fuel before conversion losses to the nation's fuel energy demand before conversion losses [15].

Such comparisons don't account for nuclear power stations thermal efficiency (typically 35%) or the electricity used by the station (typically 7% of that generated), and then don't relate to actual consumer energy use. So they mislead probably 99.99% of public and politicians and benefit or big-up nuclear power by an X factor of about 2.

Primary energy comparisons also disbenefit renewable energy sources because most (eg PV, windfarms, tidal lagoons) generate electricity directly with no thermal losses. So to express the contribution of these renewables correctly in terms of 'primary energy' the electrical output should be multiplied by a 'renewable X factor' of about 3. Does DECC do this? Of course not.

Likewise none of the major international or national energy agencies (eg IEA, IAEA, WEC, WNA, HMG's DUKES) include nuclear output as a percentage of final energy demand in their voluminous and detailed publications. When questioned about such an obvious omission, shoulders are just shrugged.

All the nuclear comparisons and percentages relate to electricity demand and climate emissions. That's why the electricity-energy mix-up has made nuclear look bigger than it is. I have never seen the error work the other way, under-reporting the percentage contribution of a nuclear power station or programme.

So here are the real figures ...

In the Moorside case the 2% number would simply not appear because it would not have been calculated, let alone included in pro-nuclear PR. It was the 7% number that awaited loose talk and non-the-wiser journalists.

So, nuclear power's contribution to UK final energy demand was just 3.8% in 2013 [16]. France, the world-leading nuclear examplar, is generating 23% of its final energy from nuclear power - not 80% as many may have read or heard [17].

Even the UK's planned 16 GW new-build programme would only generate about 9% (120 TWh/y) of future energy demand (eg 1,300 TWh/y in 2030). A 3.3 GW Chinese project at Bradwell, linked to any Hinkley C deal, would add 2% [18].

The same 11% of energy could be generated, with no uranium imports, by about 39 GW of fixed and floating offshore wind turbines on or beyond the hazy horizon. The UK's practical offshore wind resource is estimated at around 1,500 TWh/y for floating structures and 400 TWh/y for fixed structures, which is probably higher than any future UK energy need [20].

Wind costs would probably be lower too 'with £85 /MWh a conservative forecast by 2025' for floating schemes [19]. After adding in the additional balancing costs, including about 3 GW or so of decentralised gas-fired backup which itself would add valuable Grid strength and security, the system cost would be lower than Hinkley C's 35 year CfD by the time it opened.

There would probably be more jobs too overall, especially from Hull to Holyhead to Holyrood. Now there's a 'northern powerhouse'!

If the government wants to boost low carbon energy, go slow on nuclear

Indeed, with the distraction of any locally opposed onshore windfarms dealt with Cameron and Osborne can now survey the much bigger picture. Consenting the five planned nuclear projects would devastate Britain's offshore wind industry potential. A sixth Chinese station would be a coup-de-grace.

So they have the opportunity to outflank the other major parties on green issues by at least deferring any nuclear consents to give PV and offshore wind their chance.

Surely Rudd and Clark can better spend Ed Davey's give-away £1 billion per year Capacity Mechanism fund to build 12+ GW of dispersed back-up capacity in a way which empowers local businesses and Councils by seeding district heat networks and other initiatives?

On the international front, nuclear power's contribution to global energy demand was a tiny 2.4% in 2012 [21]. Although new reactors are being built many existing stations are ageing and energy demand is rising. So nuclear power will probably struggle to increase its percentage global energy supply.

The main international energy agencies are optimistically forecasting around 7,000 TWh/y of global nuclear output in 2050 compared to 2,400 TWh/y in 2014 [22]. So even this near three-fold increase in nuclear capacity worldwide would only supply around 4.4% of final energy in 2050 even if global energy demand flattened around 160,000 TWh/y [23].

The UK is currently bending over backwards to globally showcase, if not export, a marginal, toxic technology, despite its rising security and proliferation risks, as a key energy security and climate solution. The same Low Carbon Fund could be spent promoting benign renewables and non-proliferation.

Minds of clay

Britannia is at a fork in her journey. Future generations would not thank the UK for promoting the spread of nuclear technology, expertise and materials around the world. The peoples of the British Isles and Commonwealth should take a path towards a safer non-nuclear world, however many generations it may take.

The prospects, let alone Pandorian promises, for significant next-generation waste-burning 'fast' reactor deployment before 2050, if ever, look small [24]. George Monbiot should be more careful when he says that the UK's nuclear waste 'could produce enough energy to power the UK for 500 years' [25].

DECC's Chief Adviser David Mackay was referring to current electricity demand, not energy [26]. Monbiot's comment had an X factor of 3.5 - and the wind will blow far longer in any event.

So, beware the nuclear X factor, false impressions caused by oft-repeated mix-ups caused by official and lay complacency, count. The public would have a dim view of grand energy plans envisaged in inches and built in centimeters. Seemingly simple errors can matter big-time, especially in the nuclear industry, more so adjacent the Sellafield site.

The ASA and the IPC have an interest and duty to ensure that the X factor is 1 in the minds of public and politicians. The Government's DUKES team and the international energy agencies should revise their fossilised habits.

Perhaps too, one day soon, the BBC and other media will report nuclear power's contribution as a percentage of final energy demand in their duty to inform the public.

So next time the nuclear energy X factor looms large, keep calm, and rise up to make the point that British sea power is bigger, stronger, safer and tradable.



Neil Crumpton is representative for Pobol Atal Wylfa B on the DECC-NGO nuclear Forum and ONR stakeholder group, ex Friends of the Earth Cymru energy campaigner (1994-2010), ex Bellona Foundation UK energy campaigner.



2. NuGen's plans are for three AP1000 reactors totalling 3.4 GW would supply about 25 to 27 TWh per year of electricity to the Grid if the reactors achieved an average 85 to 90% 'baseload' capacity factor (eg 3.4 x 8.76 x 85 to 90% = 25.3 to 26.8).

National Grid's latest 2030 UK electricity demand scenarios (average of the four) show electricity demand around 350 TWh per year in 2030 rising thereafter due to increasing electricity use in the heat and transport sectors. So it is reasonable to state that the 3.4 GW project would generate about 7% of electricity in the 2030s (eg 26 / 370 TWh/y = 7%). Various UK energy forecasts have suggested an increase from the current 350 TWh/y electricity demand to between 400-500 TWh/y or more by 2050. So Moorside's percentage contribution would be a reducing figure year on year, possibly down to around 5% by 2050.

3. UK 'final energy demand' (electricity, heat, transport) could well fall from around 1,700 TWh per year currently due to efficiency and technology improvements to flatten off around the 1,300 TWh per year mark by 2030 before rising slowly to 2050 depending on population growth (excluding international aviation and shipping and exports) :

So it could be said that the Moorside site would probably supply about 2% of future UK energy demand at best (ie 26.8 / 1,300 = 2.06% though it could be as low as about 1.7% (eg 25.3 / 1,500) by 2050.





8. 20% electricity by 2020, Feb 03 White Paper, para 4.11, page 46 :

9. FOE Evidence, Reference 9 last page ( 17% x 19% from DUKES 2005 = 3.2% in 2004)


11. 7.5% of total energy needs, May 07 White Paper, page 15

12. May 2007 Greenpeace Blog and Media Briefing :,


14. Hansard, 27 th Nov 2007 Column 291 W :

15. Nuclear Energy Stats, Table 2 page 12 :

16. DUKES (Digest of UK Energy Statistics) 2014 : Table 5.5 page 139, nuclear supplied 64.134 TWh/y. Final Energy Demand was 1,692 TWh/y in 2013 including 37 TWh/y in distribution losses (66.5% + 1.5% of primary supply) Chart 1.4, page 14. So the 2013% nuclear contribution is 64.134 / 1,692 TWh = 3.8% of final energy demand, and 64.134 / 341.263 TWh = 18.8% of electricity demand

Note : the World Nuclear Association claim on their website that 70.6 TWh of nuclear electricity was 'produced' in the UK in 2013 ( ). However, 6.5 TWh of that was used by the station itself (for cooling pumps etc) and only 64.1 TWh was supplied to the Grid.

17. French stats :


19. ETI 'PelaStar' Executive Summary :

20. page 13 :

21. nuclear energy output was 2,411 TWh/y in 2014 : Nuclear output was 2,461 TWh/y in 2012 and global final energy demand was 104,400 TWh/y in 2012 (8,979 mtoe x 11.63) pages 16 and page 30 in IEA's Key World Energy Stats 2014 : So nuclear contribution to global energy demand (2,461/104,400) = 2.36% in 2012

22. : the IAEA's 2014 central estimate is 750 GW which would produce around 6,000 TWh/y and the hi-scenario generating around 8,500 TWh/y, the NEA-IEA 2015 Technology Roadmap estimates 930 GW which would generate around 7,000 TWh/y

23. by 2050 global final energy demand is forecast to be between 150,000 to 200,000 TWh/y : Assuming a global final energy demand of 160,000 TWh/y in 2050 then a nuclear contribution of 7,000 TWh/y would comprise about 4.4% of global energy demand




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