Few subjects are as polarising as nuclear power. Supporters claim a new generation of nuclear plants is the most effective means of helping to reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050, while filling the ‘energy gap’ that will result from the decommissioning of old fossil fuel and nuclear power facilities in the 2020s.
But opponents believe it is an expensive folly, replete with ethical and environmental effects that have repercussions for generations to come, siphoning money and attention away from renewables.
The debate took on another dimension in 2011, when the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami led to the meltdown of three of the Fukushima nuclear power plant’s reactors. In response, Germany cancelled its nuclear programme, embarking on the ‘energiewende’ (energy shift), which aims to produce 60% of Germany’s power through renewable sources by 2050. By contrast, the UK is proposing to build a new generation of nuclear power plants, starting with Hinkley Point C.
“A new generation of nuclear power stations, alongside renewables and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage, is a key part of our future low carbon energy mix,” a DECC spokesperson told the Guardian, “and will contribute to the UK’s vision of providing safe, reliable and low carbon energy for the future. Nuclear is expected to be one of the cheapest sources of low carbon electricity in the future.”
Peter Haslam, public policy advisor for the Nuclear Industry Association,said that while nuclear isn’t “the only way of meeting the energy gap… (we) need to do something if we’re going to keep the lights on. We’re going to have to replace our existing high-carbon capacity with low-carbon generation.”
Hinkley Point C will be the first nuclear power station in the UK since Sizewell B, which started generating electricity in 1995. Along with 11 other new nuclear power stations the government hopes to see built, this would transform what has for some time been a legacy industry into one that would provide 16 GWe of new nuclear capacity by 2030.
Hinkley Point C is projected to provide electricity for 6m homes, meeting approximately 7% of the UK’s demand when running at full capacity. But the proposals are controversial, not least due to the cost involved.
All new nuclear builds involve high capital expenditures. However, many opponents of the Hinkley plan claim the £92.5/MWh strike price, the loan guarantee promised by the Treasury, liability issuance provided to EDF by the Government, and other financial measures actually amount to subsidies by another name – transferring liability onto British electricity customers and taxpayers for at least 35 years.
“There are two other other consortia who might build nuclear reactors at other sites in the future, but they haven’t been involved in the strike price negotiations,” said Dr David Lowry, an independent research policy consultant specialising in nuclear. “The result of that is that EDF had a monopoly over the government as to whether or not the government would agree to take the strike price or not.”
The strike price for offshore wind is higher, pegged at £155/MWh, but Lowry claims this must be balanced by the fact that contracts only last 15 years.
Nuclear Free Local Authorities chair, Councillor Mark Hackett, said investing in nuclear is the wrong approach, “particularly in the light of the Fukushima disaster. The gargantuan cost of £16bn dwarfs previous energy projects, and is likely to make it the most expensive to build reactor in history. It could also choke off the nascent renewable energy revolution in the UK, turning off investors in offshore wind and solar at a time when such industries are rapidly taking off elsewhere in Europe”.
In addition, the coalition agreement promised that new nuclear sites would not receive state financial aid. The European Commission has doubts that the estimated £17.6 bn in financial aid for the Hinkley deal can be justified.
Many environmentalists have expressed concerns over how the nuclear waste from these new reactors will be dealt with. Cumbria recently rejected government plans for an underground nuclear waste disposal facility, and the costs of cleaning up the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site in the region have rocketed past £70bn.
“That site is so polluted and so nasty, and they just don’t know what to do with it,” claimed Catherine Mitchell, professor of energy policy at the University of Exeter, “so every time a new government comes in they just keep it going, they don’t deal with it.”
However, Haslam counters that any new build plant operators “will have to, by law, put aside funds as the stations move through their lives to ensure that there is a fund there in place at the end of their lifetime to provide for the decommissioning”.
Supporters of the new build programme believe it will provide a springboard for UK business to compete in a global nuclear energy market. New fast breeder reactors could also help address many environmental concerns, turning the UK’s stockpile of nuclear waste into nuclear fuel. But the technology is still some way off being demonstrated at scale and will require international collaboration to develop.
Given the UK’s long nuclear heritage, there is a considerable skills base in the country that the nuclear industry could to draw upon in future too. “Globally, we’ve still got a very good reputation in the nuclear sector because we’ve had 60 years of running successful and safe nuclear power generation,” said Derek Allen, lead technologist, for energy generation and supply at the Technology Strategy Board, which also invests in innovations for renewables and other forms of energy.
Many people still believe the UK is heading down the wrong electricity track, and should emulate Germany and Denmark and invest much more heavily in renewable sources of electricity. The potential for smart meters, increased energy efficiency measures, carbon capture technologies, distributed grids and community energy projects could change the way we consume electricity – and put the nuclear industry out of step with reality. “The whole energy system is changing,” added Mitchell, “and that’s really one of the big issues for nuclear power.”
This feature is part of the Guardian’s Big Energy Debate series.Click here to find out more about this project and our partners