Nuclear Electricity Belongs to the Past Not the Future

So the British government’s response to climate change is to go nuclear. The Hinkley Point nuclear power station is to be built jointly by Chinese companies and the French state-owned energy company EDF. The cost of building the plant is estimated to be £25bn. For the deal to go ahead the UK has to provide a guarantee worth £2bn. In addition the government has to provide EDF with a guaranteed price of electricity generated at twice today’s price for 35 years. This project is fundamentally flawed for the following reasons:

First, this station is very expensive and it will take at least 8 years for any electricity to be generated. Climate change needs action now, if not yesterday. Professor Clive Hamilton quotes Lovins and Sheikh in his book – Requiem for a Species – thus: “The more urgent it is to protect the climate, the more vital it is to spend each dollar in ways that will displace the more carbon soonest.” Investing in energy efficiency, and truly clean renewable systems such as wind and solar, will do just that; nuclear electricity does not. The intermittency problems associated with solar and wind energy are on the way to being solved with new electricity storage systems coming on the market, such as the Tesla Powerwall.

Second, this approach of providing power from a huge power plant is the old way of thinking. The future belongs to small truly renewable energy power plants supplying local communities or just one building. In fact, the British government website on community power generation tells us that there are at least 5000 community projects across the UK of small groups getting together to produce their electricity from renewable sources such as photovoltaic solar panels, wind turbines and hydroelectric. Jeremy Rifkin in his book – The Third Industrial Revolution – envisages electricity shared laterally across the country or even across a continent by using internet technology. His vision is that: “millions of buildings are generating a small amount of energy locally, on site, they can sell surplus back to the grid and share electricity with their continental neighbours.”

Third, guaranteeing the price at twice today’s electricity price for 35 years makes no economic sense. Renewable energy systems such as solar and wind have a price guarantee for only 15 years. Why this preferential treatment for nuclear power? Combine that with possible accidents and disasters associated with nuclear power plants (Chernobyl and Fukushima), I find it difficult to understand the government decision. Contrast that with Germany’s decision to permanently shut down eight of its seventeen operating nuclear power plants immediately following the Fukushima disaster in Japan in March 2011, with the rest closing by 2022. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, put the transition to renewable energy thus:

As the first big industrialized nation, we can achieve such a transformation toward efficient and renewable energies, with all the opportunities that brings for exports, developing new technologies and jobs.

Fourth, the Guardian reports that “over 2,000 individuals and 400 institutions are now committed to pulling their money from fossil fuel companies, together representing a remarkable $2.6tn of investments”. Leonardo Di Caprio put the case for divestment from fossil fuel thus:

Climate change is severely impacting the health of our planet and all of its inhabitants, and we must transition to a clean energy economy that does not rely on fossil fuels. Now is the time to divest and invest to let our world leaders know that we, as individuals and institutions, are taking action to address climate change, and we expect them to do their part in Paris.

Such investments going into truly clean renewable energy systems would transform the industry and would deliver cheap, clean electricity sooner than could be predicted.

So to summarize, the decision by the British government to go nuclear is going to end up costing future generations dear in the future, the burden of which will be borne by our children and grandchildren. Greenpeace’s chief scientist Dr Doug Barr sums it up well:

Instead of locking two generations of UK consumers into paying billions to foreign state-owned firms, Osborne should invest in the flexible, smart, and truly clean energy system that can power a 21st Century Britain without leaving a pile of radioactive waste as legacy.

Adnan Al-Daini (PhD, Birmingham University, UK) is a retired University Engineering lecturer. He is a British citizen born in Iraq. He writes regularly on issues of social justice and the Middle East. Read other articles by Adnan.