The Alvin Weinberg Foundation is a charity promoting safe, secure and sustainable advanced nuclear energy.

Posted by Stephen Tindale

The first half of 2016 has not exactly been stable in British politics.

In his March Budget the then Chancellor George Osborne announced a £30 million competition for Small Modular Reactors. This was in line with the recommendations in November 2015. But Osborne has now gone. The Department for Energy and Climate Change has been merged with the business department.  And no new nuclear capacity is being built: EDF have yet to make a Final Investment Decision for Hinkley.

Across Europe, nuclear energy is in decline. The European Commission and the nuclear industry itself expect nuclear to decline by a fifth by 2025. Switzerland is holding a referendum in November on whether to close existing nuclear stations early. An agreement between French socialist and green parties states that, if Flamanville becomes operational, another nuclear facility must be closed down.  Belgium has been formally committed to nuclear phase out since 1999, though the date of closing existing stations shifts according to who is in government.

A pro-nuclear civil society movement is needed to defend existing nuclear plants in these and some other countries. Such a movement is also needed to promote new nuclear, including advanced nuclear, in countries where the government is pro-nuclear, such as the Czech Republic, Finland, Poland and the UK.

The first article below is my suggestion of a progressive narrative for this civil society movement. Then comes an article by John Lindberg on why there is such strong anti-nuclear feeling in Germany. I do not think it would be worthwhile to spend time and resources arguing for nuclear in Germany – the nuclear argument has been lost there. But it is important for pro-nuclear campaigners to learn the lessons from Germany, so we can prevent other countries following Berlin’s example.

In the third article, I consider the state of energy policy in the UK and prospects for nuclear power.

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Stephen Tindale, director
Stephen.tindale@the-weinberg-foundation.org

 

A progressive pro-nuclear narrative

Stephen Tindale

Nuclear energy is clean energy. It produces no air pollution or greenhouse gas emissions during operation. Reactors provides over half of European low-carbon electricity. But nuclear energy has a serious image problem. It is seen by many as too dangerous, too expensive and too old-fashioned to be part of the future. Solar is sexy, nuclear is not. As a result, nuclear energy is in decline across Europe.

It is quite possible to put together a statistics-based argument that nuclear power is clean. Fr example, the UK’s Parliamentary Office of Science at Technology finds that most estimates of nuclear’s lifecycle greenhouse gas footprint “fall below 26 gCO2eq/kWh”. Only large wind farms and run-of-river hydro have lower carbon footprints. Gas has a footprint of around 400, coal around 800. A think tank like Weinberg Next Nuclear needs to base its work on such studies: advocacy should always be evidence-based. But statistics are not inspiring to most people outside think tanks. Powerpoint presentations do not change the world. Alongside the facts and figures, we need a progressive narrative.

Pro-nuclear campaigners must not allow ourselves to be seen as defending the status quo or the energy establishment. If we allow that to happen, we will lose. Populist, anti-establishment political parties and movements are on the rise in many countries. A pro-nuclear movement must demand change, not just more of the same.

That does not mean we have to reject existing nuclear technologies. Before Fukushima, Angela Merkel spoke of nuclear as a necessary low-carbon bridge technology, to be used while Germany moves to become 100% reliant on renewables, which will take many decades. Merkel used the bridge metaphor as an argument against premature closure of Germany’s nuclear stations. This approach was clearly preferable to her post-Fukushima line of closing all nuclear by the end of 2022.

However, nuclear energy is more than just a bridge, because a goal of 100% renewable energy is not the best objective. Not everything renewable is low-carbon. If direct and indirect land use change are taken into account – as they ought to be – much bioenergy is not sufficiently low carbon to protect the climate. Bioenergy also produces air pollutants. In 2014 over half the renewable energy used in Europe was bioenergy.

Nuclear is a dense source of energy. This means that the physical and visual impact of nuclear is lower than that of, for example, wind or solar farms. More wind and solar farms are needed, but should not be constructed anywhere. Some biodiversity and landscape constraints are valid.

Wind, solar and hydro do not produce heat. Bioenergy can produce heat, but has the disadvantages mentioned above. Geothermal energy produces heat, but is only accessible in some locations. Much heat can be provided via electricity (increasing the need for low-carbon electricity). But not all industrial heat can be electric. Nuclear reactors produce heat, which could and should be used in industry. Switzerland is the leader in the use of nuclear heat; several central and eastern European countries also use nuclear heat, though the district heating systems used to transport the heat are communist-era and very inefficient.

Existing nuclear technology is good: clean, safe and reliable. Advanced nuclear – small modular reactors, molten salt reactors and fast reactors – will be even better. These reactors will be more flexible, so able to support intermittent renewables like wind and solar. They will almost certainly be less expensive to build than existing nuclear, because the designs are less complex.

We will not know the cost for sure until some have been constructed and operated. The nuclear industry has a history of promising cheap power (“too cheap to meter”) then delivering expensive power. Much better to under-promise then over-deliver.

What pro-nuclear campaigners can say is that a fleet of advanced nuclear reactors would help deal with spent fuel and plutonium, so substantially reducing the cost of waste management and disposal. Advanced nuclear could be part of an efficient resource economy, turning the legacy of past nuclear activities into an asset rather than a liability.

Advanced nuclear  should therefore be part of the long-term energy mix. With appropriate government support, some advanced nuclear designs could be commercially available within a decade.
However, this is where there is a need for a bridge technology. New nuclear facilities using existing reactor designs are necessary, to maintain or even expand nuclear’s proportion of the energy mix until advanced nuclear is commercialised and widely available.

Advanced nuclear technology should be an important part of the future energy mix. But other low-carbon energy sources will also be needed. The message of a pro-nuclear civil society campaign should not be that we need nuclear instead ofrenewables, but that we need nuclear and renewables.
The best form of energy is energy efficiency; ‘negawatts’. Much more must be done on this. But even if total energy use went down – which is not likely and not desirable given a growing global population and many millions needing more energy – demand for electricity would increase as heating and transport went electric.

So energy efficiency and all low-carbon power sources are needed. Weinberg’s next report, in the autumn, will set out the case for a clean energy alliance.

Progressive, pro-nuclear campaigners should:

  • promote advanced nuclear energy as part of the long-term low-carbon energy future;
  • support  technological innovation in order to deal with the legacy of past nuclear activities and produce reactor designs that are even better than existing reactors;
  • build a clean energy alliance and work alongside those promoting energy efficiency, wind, solar, marine energy, geothermal and carbon capture and storage.
 
Nuclear Metamorphosis: How we learned to start worrying and fear the reactors
John Lindberg
Nuclear power has for quite some time suffered from very poor public relations. Connotations are in most cases negative, with death and destruction frequently being associated with nuclear. The notion of a technology that is mere steps away from causing a nuclear explosion is widespread. These are all misconceptions about nuclear power, which is one of the safest sources of energy. But most arguments made by proponents of nuclear power about its benefits fall on deaf ears. Given this predominantly hostile environment, one might even draw the conclusion that nuclear power as a venture  should be scrapped, because  other forms of energy production would be less controversial.However, the realities of climate change are upon us and a source of low-carbon emission energy is desperately needed that can replace coal and gas for baseload generation, for the cloudy and windless days. So how did nuclear power end up in this situation?

Harnessing the immense power of the atom began as a military venture, and the very word nuclear stirs up ambiguous connotations. The original purpose of nuclear reactors – supplying materials to nuclear bombs – created a powerful legacy of dualism. Nuclear had a dual nature, either as a peaceful reactor providing bountiful clean and stable electricity, or as a potential bomb factory. The early years of civilian nuclear power were filled with optimism about the future, as nuclear promised a virtually limitless energy source.

The 1960s represent the beginning of a watershed in nuclear energy in terms of public perception. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the number of atmospheric nuclear weapons tests steadily increased, with the fallout from these tests becoming a considerable source of public anxiety. Imagery was created portraying radioactive particles as ‘death dust’ that, regardless of its original source, posed a risk. Public pressure became significant until the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963.

After this treaty, ‘the public view of nuclear energy [underwent] a dramatic and unexpected metamorphosis.’ The fallout controversy led to an increased focus on the supposed dangers of radiation. Concerns about nuclear weapons –  the risk of technological errors that would accidentally lead to either a nuclear detonation or, worse still, nuclear war – were successfully transferred by the anti-nuclear movement which transferred to nuclear power.

Once the imagery and emotions had been transferred, it needed cementing, to create a lasting connection. The accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant presented such an opportunity for the anti-nuclear movement. The public worldwide followed the developments closely, and the situation played straight into the narrative of a technology out of control. This was further amplified by the fear that the reactor itself could explode, with similar consequences of a nuclear bomb. Whilst this risk was later found to have been greatly exaggerated by media and poor communication, the anti-nuclear movement successfully seized the moment. Nuclear power had, at least in the US, completed its journey from a saviour to a potential bringer of death.

This transformation of public opinion struck Europe a few years later, a fateful night in 1986. The Chernobyl disaster, the worst nuclear accident we have ever seen, came to be seen as a final watershed. The death toll from radioactive exposure from the accident is by, for example, Greenpeace claimed to be as high as 200,000. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) has repeatedly rejected numbers of this magnitude, with its chair Lars-Erik Holm calling them “unsubstantiated statements that have no support in scientific assessments”. The notion of mass death, as incorrect as it is, amplified the sentiment of a very dangerous technology, running out of hand. It also increased  fear of radiation.

News reports covering the accident amplified the nuclear fear that already existed. German, American and other Western media outlets widely used graphics from Chernobyl, graphics that frequently would explode. Imagery related to nuclear war was also used. The packaging efforts by anti-nuclear activists attempted to highlight the links between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, which is essential for any fear extension to take place. An excellent example of such packaging is given by Joschka Fischer, former German Vice Chancellor and leading figure of the (West) German Green movement, who states that every nuclear reactor is a potential nuclear bomb. This and the atomic ‘angst’ in Germany were further increased by the usage of ‘atomic cloud’ imagery. The cloud referred to was the radiation that was being spread from the damaged reactor, spreading nuclear fission material across the world. This notion of a cloud taps into the fears of radiation originally connected with nuclear weapons fallout.

By appealing to the fear that this evokes, the fear extension – creating the connections between nuclear weapons and nuclear power in terms of emotions and imagery – is easily made. The fear that Chernobyl’s fallout cloud generated should not be underestimated. It has had significant long-term ramifications that have come to cement the fear of nuclear, in particular accidents. The tremendously popular children’s novel ‘The Cloud’ by Gudrun Pausewang has come to play an important role regarding how Chernobyl is remembered in Germany. The scenes of an invisible killer, mass death, and widespread panic have created a lasting impact in terms of collective memory. Similar developments are seen across the world.

Challenging fear is never an easy task But on this occasion the stakes are too high to ignore. As proponents of nuclear power, we need to dismantle long established and commonly held prejudices. We need to challenge the lies, but more importantly, spread a message of hope and show how nuclear power offers a serious challenge to a failed fossil fuel status quo, a status quo that slowly is pushing humankind towards the edge.

John Lindberg is a MA Climate Change student at King’s College, London. He  is the former UK representative and Secretary-General of the Young European Council’s Energy and Climate Action Committee. Before moving to London he read Politics at the University of Glasgow and worked as policy adviser to former MSP Sir Jamie McGrigor.

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New British government: a step forward for climate strategy
Stephen Tindale

The UK no longer has a department with the words ‘climate change’ in its title. Climate policy is now the responsibility of a new Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. This could be seen as a downgrading of climate action – and has been condemned by some green groups. But I think it is a step forward.

Before 2008 energy policy had been the responsibility of the Department of Trade and Industry, and climate change dealt with by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). So different parts of the ‘energy trilemma’ – economic, social and environmental – were in different departments. The economic argument usually trumped the decarbonisation debate. The social part tended to get overlooked.

Before this month’s reshuffle there was some speculation that new prime minister May would return to this arrangement. She has not, which is a relief. Defra is not a powerful department within Whitehall. And climate change is not just an environmental issue: it affects health, the economy, foreign policy and much more.
DECC was also not a strong Whitehall department. During the 2010-15 coalition government, many Tories came to resent DECC as ‘a Lib Dem fiefdom’. After 2015 general election, there was a Tory DECC secretary, but DECC’s staff numbers were slashed, and many of the best officials left.

The new Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is likely to be stronger than DECC was. Its first secretary of state, Greg Clark, is an excellent appointment. He is clearly on the left of the Conservative party; indeed he was a Social Democrat activist while at university. He was an effective shadow DECC secretary before 2010, taking a pragmatic approach and being willing to listen and learn.

Clark’s new department is in charge of industrial strategy. Lib Dem Vince Cable spoke about industrial strategy when he was running the business department 2010-15, but his Tory successor Sajid Javid did not, wanting to leave pretty much everything to the market. An industrial strategy is necessary in order to deliver decarbonisation. If one thinks that names of departments matter (which I don’t particularly), having industrial strategy in the name of a strong department is more important than having climate change in the name of a weak one.

However, the new business department will only succeed if it is supported by those at the top of government. New Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond gave some strong speeches on climate change in his previous role as Foreign Secretary, highlighting the economic and security advantages of leading the decarbonisation effort. For example, in November last year he said:

“I do not accept that we have to choose between our future prosperity and safeguarding the future of our planet. This is not a zero sum game. As Conservatives, we choose both.”

New prime minister Theresa May has not been much involved in climate discussions: there is no great overlap with her previous portfolio of home affairs. But Carbon Brief has helpfully found two quotes. In December 2008 she said:

 “I am thrilled to see that after years of Conservative pressure, we have finally passed a necessary and ambitious piece of legislation on Climate Change. Britain is the first country in the world to formally bind itself to cut greenhouse emissions and I strongly believe this will improve our national and economic security. To stay reliant on fossil fuels would mean tying ourselves to increasingly unstable supplies which could endanger our energy security and the Climate Change and Energy Bills mark an important step for both the health of our economy and the health of our nation. It is now vital that we stick to these targets”

So the new prime minister accepts the need to move away from fossil fuels. Does she think that new nuclear reactors should be part of this move? That is less clear. In July 2006 she said:

“I welcome that the Government has responded to cross-party pressure to make it easier for homes in Maidenhead [May’s constituency] and across the country to install renewable energy like solar panels or mini-wind turbines. Where the Government offers positive, constructive and reasonable policies, they will have my support. But the Government could do far more to promote green energy, rather than giving unfair subsidies to new nuclear power stations.”

Does May regard all nuclear subsidies as unfair? Conservative party policy is pro-nuclear, mainly on energy security grounds. Clark is pro-nuclear. Hammond said on his first day in office that Hinkley will go ahead.

However, last week the UK’s public spending watchdog, the National Audit Office (NAO), published a report on Nuclear Power in the UK. While noting that much new generating capacity is needed in the UK, the report states that:

“There are particular value-for-money considerations for nuclear power compared to other generating technologies. The government is offering longer-term CfDs [Contracts for Difference] for new nuclear investment than other low-carbon technologies, reflecting the longer payback periods for nuclear power stations. This adds to price certainty for consumers but increases the risk that they do not benefit as much from any long-term changes, such as technological advances that reduce the cost of other low-carbon sources. The greater complexity and risk of nuclear power projects also could lead investors to require a higher return than for other low-carbon technologies.”

This complexity and financial risk applies to all nuclear pojects. But NAO also raises particular concerns about Hinkley Point C (HPC):

“With CfDs, taxpayers are not exposed to project risks such as cost overruns during construction. However, as part of the government’s deal for HPC, HM Treasury has provisionally agreed to guarantee up to £2 billion of bonds that NNBG [the partnership between EDF and Chines estate-owned nuclear companies] will issue to finance HPC’s construction repayable by NNBG’s shareholders in 2020. If the shareholders fail to repay and the government’s guarantee is ever called, or if the developer manages to negotiate further guarantees that are called, the funds required would be drawn from government budgets. Additionally, the HPC deal includes a Funded Decommissioning Programme, whereby the Department stipulates an amount that NNBG must set aside to cover decommissioning costs. The government will be liable for any decommissioning costs above the amount NNBG sets aside.”

As well as financial concerns, some have expressed national security concerns about Chinese involvement in UK nuclear infrastructure. May’s new joint chief of staff, Nick Timothy, has written that the Chinese might use this to build weaknesses in computer systems:

“For those who believe that such an eventuality is unlikely, the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation – one of the state-owned companies involved in the plans for British nuclear plants – says on its website that it is responsible not just for ‘increasing the value of state assets and developing the society’ but the ‘building of national defence’.”

Given May’s past comments about “unfair” subsidy, Timothy’s attitude to Chinese involvement and the recent NAO report, it is now likely that the Hinkley project will be seriously questioned – as it should be in my view. The European Pressurised Reactor, the design being built in France and Finland and proposed for Hinkley, is very complicated and so very expensive. Other existing nuclear options are less complex and so would require less subsidy.

All new nuclear facilities might well require more subsidy than renewable energy facilities. However, the UK is legally obliged, under the 2008 Climate Change Act, to meet carbon budgets. May has said, as quoted above, that it is vital to stick to these targets. To his credit, David Cameron found time in his last fortnight as prime minister to accept the advice of the Committee on Climate Change that the budget for 2028-32 should be 57% below 1990 emission levels. So the appropriate question for nuclear subsidy is not whether this is higher or lower than subsidies to other technologies, but whether it is possible to meet the carbon budget without new nuclear.

As the late David MacKay argued so effectively in Sustainable Energy – without the hot air, it is much more practical to include nuclear as part of the energy portfolio, and the carbon budgets are much more likely to be met. Size matters as well as cost. Cheaper options should be supported – including onshore wind which the Conservatives have stopped subsidising. But new nuclear must be part of the mix.


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