29 July 2011: Jonathon Porritt on nuclear power

Jonathon Porritt, the person who has done more than anyone to promote sustainable development in the UK, has now created a website (http://www.jonathonporritt.com/), and one of the first articles is a response to Guardian columnist George Monbiot on nuclear power.  I don’t agree with Jonathon on this, but his article is definitely worth reading.

Encouragingly, Jonathon accepts that there is a legitimate debate to be had about the role of nuclear power. He doesn’t regard being anti-nuclear as a theological tenet of being ‘green’, and states that:

“I’ve always supported the continuation of research into new nuclear technologies.  It is indeed conceivable that at some stage in the future new reactor designs could prove to be so superior that we would be mad not to take advantage of such breakthroughs in the supply mix. We should continue to keep that door open.”

Friends of the Earth England and Wales have said the same, supporting research into thorium molten salt reactors (see http://www.cer.org.uk/pdf/pb_thorium_june11.pdf).

But Jonathon opposes the construction of new nuclear power stations using existing nuclear technology, citing cost, incompatability with renewables, the fact that renewables are always better and the availability of CCS as a better bridge technology until we can be 100% reliant on renewables.

Jonathon disagrees with the Committee on Climate Change’s recent conclusion that nuclear is “the most cost-effective” low carbon technology.  He highlights the hidden subsidies on nuclear power, including the indirect subsidy which the industry receives in the form of insurance liability, and asserts that:

“no reactor ever has been, or ever will be, built without massive public subsidy – a point readily conceded by most industry representatives”.

He is right about this.  Nuclear power requires subsidy, just as renewables and CCS do.  As Ed Miliband said when he was Energy and Climate Change Secretary: “You can have cheap energy, or you can have clean energy.  You can’t yet have cheap, clean energy”.

Jonathon accepts the need for CCS as a bridge technology:

“There will need to be some “generating bridge” to get us to that 2050 point.  For me, this comes down to a straight choice between your [George Monbiot’s] “least worst option”, namely nuclear, and my “least worst option”, gas plus Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).  Both nuclear and CCS are hugely expensive, and CCS is still unproven at scale.  But we’re almost certainly going to need CCS anyway (installed even on biomass plants) given the speed at which greenhouse gases continue to build up in the atmosphere.  And at least gas is relatively cheap, relatively easily available, and relatively easy to build.  Gas-powered stations built over the next five to ten years could be economically retired from 2035 onwards.”

This is an important argument, and one which Jonathon could usefully make to Green Party leader and MP Caroline Lucas, who opposes both nuclear and CCS. (He is a member of the Green Party, so I’m sure he has.)  The reason why I believe both nuclear and CCS are needed as bridges is because – as Jonathon acknowledges – CCS is still not proven at scale. There is no obvious reason why it shouldn’t work. But we won’t be absolutely sure until it has been demonstrated at scale and integrated throughout the process. That won’t happen for the next five years at least, probably longer. So it isn’t sensible, in my view, to put all our eggs in the CCS basket. Nuclear power stations take a long time to construct, so a five year delay in starting construction would mean extra years of burning coal and gas without CCS – which the climate can’t afford.

Jonathon then argues that nuclear power stations have a high financial opportunity cost:

“Nuclear power is the most capital-intensive of all supply options.  With estimates ranging from £4 billion to £5.5 billion for a new nuclear reactor, there is a clear risk that other options will be frozen out by this level of capital commitment.”

This is a legitimate concern, and he also points out that some nuclear companies are arguing against rapid renewable expansion.  But the countries with the highest installed wind power capacity, China and the US, both have pro-nuclear governments.  And France is doing better on renewables than the UK is.  So it is possible to support and expand both renewables and nuclear power.

Jonathon then answers a question posed by George Monbiot: are renewables always better?:

“I believe the answer to that question, today, is a clear “yes”.”

Does he really mean “always”?  Does he think that biofuels which lead to high carbon emissions than petrol or diesel do are better than electric vehicles powered by nuclear stations?  Or that power stations burning energy crops, meaning that forests are cut down to grow the food previously grown where the energy crops are now grown, are better than nuclear power stations?  If he does mean this, I can only disagree.

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  1. The nuclear power debate is highly complex and good people are coming down on different sides. But there is one simple point we can all agreement: The nuclear power industry must take out full third party liability insurance.

    At present, it has insurance for £140 million, which is a fraction of 1% of a Chernobyl or a Fukushima.

    This will significantly push up the cost of nuclear power.

    More here: http://www.energyfair.org.uk/reports/summary-of-bee-study

  2. One thing I don’t get is, if current renewables are so great, why is Germany planning to build up to 20 GW of new fossil fuel plants to replace it’s 17 GW of nuclear plants?

    Who not just keep those nuclear plants, and spend the money on 20 GW of renewables + storage? Why shut nuclear down and build fossil fuel plants? The whole “stepping-stone” thing is just junk. You don’t need a stepping stone if current renewable technology is cheap and suitable now.

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