Things got a bit feisty earlier this week in committee room 19 of Britain’s Houses of Parliament, where vocal supporters and opponents pulled no punches as they debated the country’s nuclear power future.
“I just can’t bear all this dodging and ducking and diving – it’s frankly treating us all as if we’re fools,” declared Caroline Lucas, a Green Party MP. She accused the Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition government of a masquerade that would provide subsidies to the nuclear industry including French utility EDF, despite the government’s assurances that it won’t subsidize nuclear.
“This, frankly, as a proposition, stinks,” agreed Tom Burke, a visiting professor at University College London’s Centre for Law and Environment, and founding director of sustainability think tank E3G.
Both Lucas and Burke were referring to measures in the government’s proposed Energy Bill aimed at assuring sustainable power. Burke lambasted the government’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) not only over likely subsidy violations, but also for a duplicitous role in which, he said, DECC is supporting nuclear by betting on rising energy prices while actively trying to drive down prices through a program called the Green Deal.
CLOSED DOOR DEALINGS
Lucas, Burke and other critics assailed the government and EDF for negotiating behind closed doors – a practice Burke suggested was unconstitutional. DECC and EDF are discussing a “strike price” – a guaranteed rate that EDF would receive for electricity from two new nuclear reactors it is ready to build at the Hinkley Point site in southwest England – under the proposed Energy Bill and its “contracts for difference” provision. It is this strike price that many say constitutes a subsidy, in violation of EU law that prevents state aid to nuclear. The government desperately wants the reactors. EDF says it won’t proceed until it has assurances.
For their part, DECC and EDF couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about.
Hergen Haye, DECC’s head of new nuclear and strategy, called the discussions with EDF “legally robust” and said that Parliament will have a chance to fully review the Energy Bill’s proposals for electricity market reform once details like the strike price are worked out, and that the public will be able to scrutinize it.
But Haye said that at the current juncture, “What you don’t do is obviously have negotiations back at the tea hall with the public. That doesn’t’ work for commercial reasons. We would never ever come to any conclusion.”
The strike price will also hold up to EU subsidy laws, he said.
NUCLEAR FOR LOW CARBON
Likewise, Nigel Knee, EDF’s head of nuclear policy noted that the so-called contract for difference has to be “robust” and has to provide “confidence to investors that there will be a return.” And, he added, “It’s not about subsidy. We’re shovel ready (at Hinkley Point). We’d like to see the legislation finished so that we can make the financial commitments.”
And so on and so on went the back-and-forth debate, which you’re probably assuming was a meeting of the energy committee or of some nuclear power subcommittee within Parliament.
This was a gathering put together by the All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group, which invited speakers to present on the pros and cons of nuclear, and on the nuclear aspects of the government’s Energy Bill. (It was co-organized by a group called the Nuclear Consulting Group, which, despite its name, comprises members from the nuclear and renewables industry, including anti-nuclear individuals, and which at the time of this writing was prominently featuring pictures of wind turbines on its website).
Of course nothing was settled in the lively hour steered deftly by chairwoman MP Joan Walley, who is also chair of the Environmental Audit Select Committee, which looks after environmental protection. But one of several things that impressed me among the intermittently compelling and convenient arguments by both sides was that this donnybrook was hosted not by the energy crowd per se, but by those tending to the scourge of climate change.
In other words, nuclear keeps escalating in the “low carbon future” discussion, joining the mindshare that solar and wind and other renewables have traditionally occupied. It reminded me of how environmental group Greenpeace applauded last autumn when the heads of Britain’s nuclear, renewables and carbon capture industry groups joined together to insist that the government write low carbon measures into its then unpublished Energy Bill.
ENERGY EQUALS CLIMATE (BURKE’S LAW)
“Climate change is really the central interest of this All Party Parliamentary Group. We’re all here because we’re interested and conerned about climate change,” EDF’s Knee reminded everyone.
“I agree with Nigel about one thing,” said E3G’s Burke, a former Friends of the Earth executive director and an environmental adviser to mining giant Rio Tinto. “Energy policy is our climate policy. My problem is if we get the wrong energy policy we have the wrong climate policy. And I think where he and his company want to take us gives us the wrong energy.”
And plunge we did back into the debate, which for many simply boiled down to nuclear vs. no nuclear. (Not so simply for the Liberal Democrats, I should add. As Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes told the gathering, “We are a party opposed to nuclear.” That’s a paradox, to say the least, for a party that’s part of the governing coalition that’s pushing for eight new nuclear plants. And it is a Liberal Democrat, Ed Davey, who heads DECC and is overseeing the Energy Bill and the nuclear strike price proceedings. Some opposition.)
The packed room grilled EDF’s Knee and DECC’s Haye about how they were going to assure safe handling and storage of nuclear waste, and how they were going to pay for it. Lydia Meryll from the Socialist Environment and Resources Association, a Labour Party affiliated group, pointed out that nuclear decommissioning already takes up more than half of DECC’s annual budget.
Stephen Thomas, professor of energy policy at the University of Greenwich, questioned the competence of EDF, citing huge cost and schedule overruns at the company’s reactor construction site in Flamanville, France, where an originally five year, €3.3 billion project is now estimated at nine years and €8.5 billion.
All good and fair questions.
But what all the back and forth really failed to address was a third way, and one that could bridge the gap between the “for” and “against” crowd: Alternative nuclear.
As we are always pointing out here at Weinberg, the nuclear industry has been fundamentally running on the same technology for 50-some years – solid uranium fueled, water cooled reactors. (The pressurized water reactors that EDF wants to build at Hinkley Point are among the latest and improved versions).
While these have a sound safety record, there are other fuels and reactor types that could outperform them in efficiency, safety and in the mitigation of waste.
Reactor designs like molten salt, pebble bed and fast neutron all run at higher temperatures than today’s reactors, which is good from an efficiency standpoint. Some of them can breed their own fuel and use waste as fuel – minimizing the worrisome challenge of what to do with waste. A molten salt reactor that runs thorium fuel can reduce the risk of producing waste suitable for weapons. And let’s not forget fusion.
Many of these will come in small or “modular” forms, auguring lower upfront costs for utilities or industrial users that can’t afford to add the gigawatt-plus sizes of conventional reactors. Smaller reactors can also potentially be fabricated in less expensive “assembly line” type procedure, reducing costs and attracting investors.
These alternatives are making nuclear believers out of non-believers. Weinberg patron and House of Lords member Baroness Bryony Worthington, for instance, is a former Friends of the Earth anti-nuclear campaigner who is now the West’s most vocal politician advocating thorium use.
Just a thought, but perhaps they could also help any Liberal Democrat trying to square their party’s opposition to nuclear with their coalition-tied backing of it. And that includes Energy Secretary Davey himself.
I didn’t really expect to hear a lot about alternative nuclear at this week’s All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group. And to be clear, alternative fuels and reactors are not currently a market option. You couldn’t install and run one at Hinkley Point anytime soon, if for no other reason it would take at least seven years to get regulatory approval. And that can’t even begin to happen until research and development on these reactors is complete, which will require funding.
It is imperative that others do the same. None of the designs are altogether new – many go back 50 years, but for various political and other reasons, lost the technology race. An R&D push with government backing could help polish them into working order. We have certainly identified various current initiatives around the world in this blog, and will continue to do so. I invite you to scroll down through our archives (and I apologize that we don’t have a search feature to offer – we’re working on it!).
But before you do, here’s an encouraging word I picked up in the hallway chatter after Tuesday’s gathering: DECC’s chief scientific adviser, David MacKay, is taking an interest in thorium and other alternatives which might soon become more clear.
MacKay, a Cambridge physics professor and author of Sustainable Energy – without the hot air, is a level headed thinker with a practical view of energy costs, and is preparing a report on nuclear R&D strategy that should address alternative nuclear. I’m told he’ll publish it within the next few months. I assume it is the same nuclear roadmap strategy for 2050 and beyond that, last I knew, he was co-authoring with the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir John Beddington and with the scientific adviser to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills, John Perkins.
They began working on the report as part of the government’s response to a House of Lords query into nuclear’s future.
I will be queuing up for a copy and will let you know as I find out more. So watch this space, right honourable reader. And do speak up with any thoughts, in the comments section below.
Photos: Parliament by Tony Moorey via Wikimedia. Ed Davey at Dounreay from DECC via Flickr.