Nuclear energy is extremely expensive and produces a legacy of toxic waste that lasts for thousands of years. So why is the UK Government basing its long-term energy strategy on this controversial energy source?
Nuclear power in a changing energy landscape
In July of 2019 residents of Paris sweltered under record breaking temperatures that exceeded 40°C.
Humans need a cool environment to survive, let alone thrive, and over-heating is a major threat to health and wellbeing.
As the mercury continued to rise across France this summer, there has been a surge in demand for electricity as people ratchet up their air-conditioning. This is putting a huge strain on an aging infrastructure, which is already winding down much of its legacy generation capacity.
A great deal of France’s nuclear power plants are old. Up to six reactors, are set to close by 2028. With the prospect of hundreds of billions of euros needed to safely decommission their aging fleet, the French are becoming painfully aware of the phenomenal demands placed by nuclear power on domestic economics.
As a result, France’s new energy strategy is firmly focused on expanding its renewable energy assets, with a target of doubling renewable generation capacity from 48GW to 74GW in the next 10 years.
The logic of replacing aging nuclear power with new renewable capacity is obvious for a country that faces bankruptcy under the burden of safely decommissioning their nuclear fleet.
To compound matters, France (like all nuclear powered nations) will need to identify a safe, long term strategy for storing the hazardous nuclear waste and toxic components of the nuclear fission process.
In the UK the estimated cost of processing and disposing of nuclear waste runs into the hundreds of billions of pounds, presenting a gigantic burden to the UK taxpayer.
The Sizewell B plant in Suffolk also emits toxic radioactive particles into the air and seawater, chemicals that are not measured by the Environmental Agency, because to measure is to gain intelligence that would require action contrary to the political mandate to advance the civil nuclear programme because it supports the nation’s military nuclear programme.
A study from the University of Sussex suggests that the civil nuclear power programme is only in place to support the military nuclear weapons programme
Nuclear power is not necessary to secure a low carbon future.
The first two nuclear power plants scheduled to close in France have a capacity of 920MW each. Replacing this shortfall with renewable energy can be easily done and at a much lower cost than nuclear.
Rampion wind farm off the coast of Sussex provides half of this electricity capacity, without bankrupting the public purse or imposing any of the environmental hazards of nuclear power.
Furthermore, unlike nuclear reactors which require enriched uranium for fuel, renewable energy technologies can produce new electricity using our biggest reactor of all, the sun (which provides energy for solar panels as well as heating the air to power wind turbines).
There is also great potential in the development of new renewable technologies such as tidal power, which has been dismissed by the Dept for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy as being too expensive despite evidence to the contrary.
Why new nuclear power is a bad deal for the UK
The UK government supports building new nuclear power stations regardless of all of the information it has concerning the economic and environmental high costs it poses to society.
It will be interesting to see if Ofgem, the energy regulator, has the wisdom and temerity to pursue a strategy that encourages investment in local, distributed electricity networks to supplement and strengthen the current centralised electricity grid.
The right mix is a balanced local and utility scale distribution network. Our current electricity grid, that has been operating since early last century, desperately needs modernisation to be made fit for purpose for new, low carbon generation technologies and smart flexible distribution..
We must redirect our financial resources away from wasteful investment in nuclear power and towards a distributed electricity network powered by community owned renewable energy assets.
Who is to shoulder the high cost of nuclear power? The great British public of course...
The French state-owned energy supplier EDF has proposed that UK taxpayers start paying upfront for the cost of their new power plants in the UK. This would mean that the UK taxpayer finances these decisions and takes on all the financial risk.
The only way that taxpayers can hold governments accountable for decisions on how their tax money is spent is by voting for representatives in local Councils and in Parliament.
Unfortunately, the influence of the voting public is perhaps not as powerful in swaying Government opinion as the nuclear lobby is in promoting new nuclear power stations.
As UK residents we already contribute to the transmission network through a charge that comprises one fourth of our electricity bill. This money needs to be reinvested in the creation of a smart, flexible, modern energy grid.
Without huge investment in our electricity network, our energy costs will continue to rise because of the outdated, centralised system that impacts electricity pricing.
With decentralised local energy, we can move towards more efficient, cleaner electricity generation that puts power in the hands of local communities and supports the transition to a zero-carbon society.
Nuclear power is an expensive and highly toxic, polluting process that must be abandoned as a failed experiment in harnessing powerful atomic energy because of its dangerous side effects.