by Dave Elliott
As noted in an article in Regional Life, a local conservation e-magazine linked to a local anti nuclear group, the flat landscape of the Dengie peninsula in Essex is punctuated by a line of tall wind turbines, slowly turning and the massive grey-blue hulk of the former Bradwell ‘A’ nuclear power station. These two features it says graphically express the contrast between rise of renewable energy and the demise of nuclear power, the past and the future of electricity generation.
Renewable energy, mainly wind and solar, is rising on the back of rapidly falling costs. So much so that the International Energy Agency, which has in the past been rather guarded about their potential, has switched over to seeing them as the main way ahead, supplying 90% of global electric power by 2050.
That is actually quite conservative compared to some projections for the UK: renewables are supplying over 43% of UK power at present and the Renewable Energy Association says that reaching 100% is possible by 2032 – indeed Scotland is already almost there. All of which raises the question of why we are still pursuing nuclear power- which just about everyone agrees is very much more expensive than wind and solar.
The recent BBC TV documentary series on construction work at Hinkley Point C in Somerset made stunningly clear the massive scale and environmental footprint of nuclear projects like this. Especially notable was the vast amount of concrete that had to be poured- the production of which involves significant release of carbon dioxide gas. That is one reason why nuclear plants are not zero carbon options, another being the fact that mining and processing uranium fuel are energy and carbon intensive activities.
By contrast, renewable energy systems like solar cells and wind turbines need no fuel to run, and, although energy is needed to make the materials used in their construction, the net carbon/energy lifetime debt is less than for nuclear- one study suggested nuclear produces on average 23 times more emissions than onshore wind per unit electricity generated.
While there are debates about the carbon sums, it is clear that, globally, the generation economics favour renewables, with wind and solar racing ahead worldwide. And, despite indulging in a nuclear side dish, renewables are also the big new thing in the UK, with offshore wind taking the lead. The Government’s stated aim is to generate ‘enough electricity from offshore wind to power every home by 2030’. That means many more offshore wind farms, off the East coast and also elsewhere around the UK.
With the other renewables also added in and more of them planned (we have 14 GW of solar capacity so far) it is hard to see what the nuclear plants are for – the 9 GW or so of old plants and the new 3.2 GW Hinkley Point C plant, much less any other proposed new ones. The nuclear lobby sometimes argues we need more nuclear to replace nuclear plants that are being closed and also to back up renewables. It is hard to see how that could work, unless the new plants were flexible, and able to compensate for the variable output of the 30GW or so of wind and solar capacity we have at present. As yet there are no plans to run the Hinkley Point C plant that way, or for that matter, the proposed 3.2 GW Sizewell C. In which case, adding more nuclear will mean that, at times of low demand, some cheap renewable output, or some low cost flexible gas plant output, would have to be curtailed. What a waste! All of this to keep the £22bn Hinkley Point, and any that follow, financially viable.
Under the financial agreement, when completed by around 2026, Hinkley Point C will be guaranteed £92.5/MWh for power generated, almost twice what wind and solar may get by that time. The incongruity of that, and the lack of room on the grid for more nuclear capacity, especially if Sizewell C goes ahead, may be why plans for the giant new nuclear Bradwell B seem to be faltering, quite aside from concerns about China’s role and the idea of letting it build one of its plant designs there.
We have been hearing that nuclear will be cheap for most of the last 60 years, whereas renewables were constantly billed as very expensive. Well that has now finally all changed. Indeed, some renewables seem headed for trivial costs. And renewables do not leave long-lived highly radioactive wastes to deal with indefinitely.
Which brings me back to Bradwell A. Although shut down in 2002 after forty years operation, it will remain as a radioactive waste dump until the end of the century. If Bradwell B is ever built it will remain dangerous until the end of the next century. The approach represented by the neighbouring turbines is better, easier, cheaper and cleaner than nuclear energy and it leaves nothing behind. Maybe eventually we will recognize that and avoid wasting any more time and money on the nuclear dead end.
Sadly though, that may take time. The bulk of the mainstream UK media often still promotes nuclear as a wonderful way ahead. Indeed there seem to be something of a pro-nuclear propaganda initiative going on, even spreading to the Guardian. A notable exception has been the reliably irreverent Private Eye. In June, its Old Sparky columnist said that programme 1 in the BBC series on Hinkley ‘dwelt lovingly and uncritically on the grand-scale engineering and airbrushed the extent of the monstrous delays and budget overruns’. But programme 2 did at least admit that wind and solar were cheaper. And there was a brief mention in Programme 1 that there had been opposition to Hinkley Point C. Even so, the overall tone and direction of the coverage seemed pretty partisan, and not something you might expect from the BBC, or indeed from the OU, which was billed as providing academic backing. That’s not to say that the media, including the BBC, do not provide some very good coverage of renewables and green energy technology, including critical commentary where needed. But, somehow, critical views on nuclear often seem to be down-played: it’s usually left to green groups and independent academics to challenge pro-nuclear views. Will that suffice, as renewables expand, and nuclear tries to do likewise? Or do we have to look at the options more critically given that there really may not be room for both?
This article first appeared in Renew Extra Weekly