White nuclear elephants move onto the endangered list

Nuclear power is now recognised as not economically viable. This confirms that renewable energy really does deserve its place in the sun, argues Bruce Davis, the managing director of Abundance Investment

For once the experts are aligned with the people. As the government’s own surveys show, support for the growth of renewables as a source of energy for the UK is at an all time high.

The UK has long been a welcoming habitat for a number of white elephants. Normally, these rare and massive beasts roam freely, grazing on political expediency. However, now and again their existence is threatened by outbreaks of political honesty and economic necessity.

This week saw calls for the humane culling of one species of white elephant in particular, namely our political obsession with nuclear energy.

This is an obsession that continues despite the industry’s inability to reduce the risks of construction, costs of production and - most importantly - find a sustainable and morally acceptable way to deal with long-term storage of radioactive waste.

Wind and solar energy

What makes this especially worrying for our nuclear white elephants is that these calls didn’t come from environmental lobbyists but from a select body of experts charged with coming up with a plan for the future of the UK’s infrastructure.

The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) is a group of eminent, independent experts whose long-term plan for developing UK infrastructure looks beyond short-term political concerns and provides a clear policy direction for government and investors about what the country needs to thrive and compete sustainably in the 21st century.

Professor David Fisk CB, one of the commissioners, summed it up, “Falls in the prices of renewable technologies have made them increasingly viable as one of this country’s main sources of electrical power.

"Nuclear power stations will not be coming onstream before the 2030s– so we need to continue encouraging development of wind and solar energy sources to meet our legally binding climate change targets.

“By investing now in built infrastructure, and finding the best low-carbon sources for heating our homes and businesses, costs will be kept down, helped by savings from the switch to low carbon electric vehicles.”

Nuclear is dead

In other words, the sums on nuclear no longer add up when faced with the progress made in the economics of renewables - and the future potential for those trends to continue.

A potentially fatal dose of economic logic that trumps the politics of so-called ‘strategic industries’; we can’t have it both ways, either markets dictate how we deal with our society’s problems or they don’t.

By contrast the Green industry has spent its time getting its economic house in order. This goes well beyond discussions around the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon.

There has been a quiet revolution taking place at the grass roots which has turned the tide of evidence - so to speak - towards renewables as a viable option for delivering the lion’s share of the energy mix - a phrase that was itself invented by the nuclear industry to justify the huge costs of building and decommissioning a nuclear reactor.

That is not to say that nuclear is dead as an option, but it forces what has been a relatively protected industry sector to assess whether it can compete in the real world.

For once the experts are aligned with the people. As the government’s own surveys show, support for the growth of renewables as a source of energy for the UK is at an all time high.

Ethical choice

The analogy here for me is the UK finance sector. High street banks enjoyed a relatively privileged and protected existence until the economics of that political strategy began to backfire on the health of the economy from which the banks drew their profits, and inflicted their losses when the system fell into crisis.

A thriving alternative finance sector - which Abundance is part of - is now forcing banks to innovate and change.

We need the same spirit of competition in the energy market. Onshore wind and solar in particular need to be rewarded for their success in bringing down costs and reducing the impact on energy bills of transitioning to a clean growth economy.

This means opening auctions for long-term capacity provision to all technologies, not just selecting a few winners. Rumours of such a policy shift have been blowing through the industry for some time now. It can’t come soon enough.

The environment debate is often characterised as purely an ethical choice held back by the regressive politics of nimbyism and protectionism.

Just transition

Now an independent body of experts is making the case for renewable energy to government which highlights the bigger political concern of rising energy bills in a time of relatively flat wage growth.

Importantly the NIC doesn’t stop there. It also recommends a massive public investment in the energy efficiency of social housing.

The wider economic and political agenda recognises the impact that the transition to green has on a key driver of inequality: exposure to above inflation rises in the cost of fossil fuels and global volatility in energy prices fuelling economic shocks.

For once the experts are aligned with the people. As the government’s own surveys show, support for the growth of renewables as a source of energy for the UK is at an all time high.

For the sake of a few white elephants we can start the process of a just transition to a low carbon economy.

This Author

Bruce Davis is managing director of Abundance Investment, which advertises with The Ecologist.

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