The slow race to develop UK nuclear power is on
So far the New Year has delivered some cheer to nuclear supporters. Perhaps the best news is the purchase by Toshiba, owners of Westinghouse, for £85m of a controlling 60% stake from Iberdrola/GDF-Suez in what seemed to be the moribund NuGen scheme to build nuclear reactors near Sellafield. We assume that the Government has extended NUGen’s five-year option taken on the Moorfields site in 2008 as Toshiba gets down to complete the licensing process for its AP1000 reactor, which awaited the prospect of UK development.
The move means that there is now real price and delivery competition for EdF at Hinkley Point in Somerset. We hope it is reflected in the eventual cost of three Westinghouse reactors which, with a planned combined capacity of 3400MW, would deliver seven per cent of UK needs.
According to the Daily Telegraph of January 14, Toshiba reckons it would take only four years to build the first reactor, given its modular design used elsewhere in the world. This should place it at an advantage over EdF’s EPR which has experienced early-of-a-kind problems in Finland and at Flamanville in France. Estimates of the two projects put EdF at £16bn and Westinghouse at “at least £10bn”.
We shall see. But at least we now have three active bids to build nuclear power stations in the UK. The UK authorities are moving on the generic design assessment of Hitachi’s advanced boiling water reactor intended for Wylfa, Anglesey, and Oldbury under the Horizon banner. This process is expected to take four years. The first new nuclear power is scheduled from EdF in 2023.
All this is, of course, subject to EU state aids vetting now proceeding in Brussels and the activities of the Irish, who are threatening to sue over any Sellafield development, and obstructive so-called “greens”. You need the patience of Job in the nuclear business.
You also need to avoid crying over spilt milk. We have got to make the best of what we have got – as the speaking note circulated with the December Newsletter tried to do. That cannot, of course, prevent two thoughts about the past.
What a pity we did not replicate Sizewell B in the 1990s as oil and gas poured from every orifice in the North Sea and politicians, in their misplaced greenery, saw nuclear as “economically unattractive”. Those unbuilt stations would have been cheap at the price and we would not now be having the steady drip of speculation as to when the first blackout will occur – or Ministers responding, with fingers and legs crossed, protesting that the lights will not go out.
Toshiba’s bid for the West Cumbrian development also puts the Government- enforced sale by BNFL of its Westinghouse asset in the category of Ministerial disasters to rank with Gordon Brown’s sale of gold reserves at the wrong market moment. We had a perfectly serviceable modern reactor of our own and then damn near gave it away in 2006 to the Japanese for under £3bn.
If they can do this, is it any wonder that our political establishment have produced such a useless energy policy under which we now labour?
The month under review
This brings us to the two other main developments of the past month:
• – more evidence of growing disenchantment with renewables
• – by extension, growing criticism of UK and EU energy policies, in so far as they can be separated.
The eu’s half u-turn
Almost as interesting as Toshiba’s purposeful entry into the UK nuclear scene is the EU’s U-turn of sorts on renewable targets. These have probably done more than anything else to distort and ridicule energy policy over recent years and raise its cost to consumers.
In fact, this month has seen the EU come to repentance in a big way: another
report admitted that the single currency is fuelling inequality and loss of
sovereignty and has led to increased unemployment and social hardship. It is
always encouraging to see the scales falling from our governors’ eyes.
But back to renewables. On January 23 the press reported, sometimes in a very convoluted way, that the EU’s ardour for renewables seemed to be cooling a bit. Apparently, it is abandoning its current system of setting mandatory national targets for renewables, leaving member-states to decide how to achieve a 40% reduction in CO2 emissions (on 1990) by 2030. It will still have a target for 27% of EU energy from renewables by 2030 but will somehow leave nation- states to decide how to achieve it. This is classical EU progress by fudge.
Nonetheless, it enabled Ed Davey, Energy Secretary, to be seen as victor over Germany, France and Italy who wanted national targets for renewables and to hail the “flexibility”of the “technology neutral approach”.
Yet the meeting was hardly over before industry was quibbling. While welcoming the 40% emissions target, Foratom, the Brussels-based organisation representing nuclear power, and Westinghouse argued that the deal did not represent “technology neutrality”. Foratom said it did not recognise nuclear’s role in producing two-thirds of Europe’s low carbon electricity at competitive prices. Westinghouse said setting an EU target for renewables could result in unfair competition, higher costs and “unworkable market mechanisms”.
We shall see whether the EU is making progress crabwise or not at all.
Meanwhile, all this manoeuvring leaves us with two facts: 1) Britain has already gaily committed itself unilaterally to a tougher 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2025; and 2) the consequences of the 2009 directive that set the objective of ensuring 20% of energy used by 2020 would come from renewables, with Britain’s target of 15% of its total energy use to be met by renewables by the end of this decade.
It can only be that directive – as distinct from prudent, rational, practical government – that still has Ministers pushing the two most expensive generating options – offshore wind and solar – as if it were the sensible thing to do.
In short, sanity is delayed, though we nuclear folk would be churlish not to welcome a testing target for CO2 reduction by 2030. The only way it is ever likely to be achieved against a background of consistently missed CO2 reduction goals is by going nuclear. We shall soon find out whether the UK and Europe are really serious about acting on whatever credible evidence exists of man- made global warming.
The “immorality” of wind power
Sometimes, it seems, the UK Government is getting the message. At other times, it is as deaf as a post. At The Spectator’s energy conference Michael Fallon, Energy Minister, said “mature” renewable technologies such as onshore wind and large scale solar should not receive Government subsidies. He added: “It is not right – it is immoral – for hardworking base rate taxpayers to be lining the pockets of landowners by funding the development of large scale renewables that don’t need further subsidy”.
But there was no mention of even more expensive offshore wind. Perhaps this was not surprising because Ed Davey, in an interview with the Independent on January 2, argued that neither Ed Miliband’s proposed Labour energy price freeze nor a fracking boom would reduce household prices. Instead he wanted a network of interconnectors across Europe to bring down the price of electricity, now roughly twice that in the USA. He presumably had his eye on the North Sea where interconnection is seen as the key to finding a use for offshore wind power as and when it is generated.
We are progressing slowly, if at all. If the politicians were serious about security of low carbon supply – and had the political courage to match it – they would be all out for nuclear. We should certainly be hearing a lot less about wind and all the other renewables, mature, immature or just laughable.
For your jollification
It certainly needs a sense of humour to cope with this month’s intelligence about the consequences of our perhaps waning obsession with renewables. How’s this for an indictment of political stewardship:
- To cope with the unpredictability of wind, Ofgem has sanctioned the National Grid to pay factories to switch off in emergencies between 4-8pm in winter to keep the lights on and to put mothballed gas plants on standby outside the main market. Another idea is to pay industrial plants to use electricity in the middle of the night when it can be plentiful.
- All this is because they are getting the wind up, to coin a phrase. Consultants now see the generating safety margin down to a mere two per cent next year. Coal-fired Eggborough, in Yorkshire, capable of generating 4% of national demand, is under threat of closure because it has failed to secure a Government subsidy to convert from coal to wood, which is perhaps as well since it would not do much to reduce CO2 emissions. Indeed, nearly a third of coal-fired plants, which latterly have generated 40% of Britain’s electricity because it is a cheap fuel, will close by the end of next year under EU law.
- “Constraint payments” – paying wind turbine owners not to produce power when there is a glut – cost about £30m last year.
- Not surprisingly, the Daily Telegraph reported on January 14 that the number of wind farms granted planning permission had risen by 66% over past three years in what the Renewable Energy Foundation described as a “stampede to get under the wire” lest the generous subsidy system was tampered with – as is now happening. The approval of solar farms has been even more dramatic – up from nine in 2010 to 141 last year. This raises the question as to whether any local authority can be relied upon to protect the landscape.
- Reporting on a DECC survey of 26 nations, The Times on January 13 said that the UK paid higher wind farm subsidies than most other countries – £95/MWh compared with an average of £77/MWh. Six were dearer. While Texas and Iowa paid less than £40/MWh, Japan forked out a whopping £170/MWh. But Britain had a pretty good load factor at 29%. Just think what the world is paying for inefficiency.
- Geoffrey Cox, Tory MP for West Devon and Torridge, reported nearby wind turbines cut the value of a house by a minimum of 10-15% and by up to a third in some cases.
- Meanwhile, Germany, that shining star in the renewables firmament, generated more electricity last year with exceptionally filthy brown coal (lignite) than at any time since 1990 and is building 10 hard coal power stations over the next two years. The “greens” should be proud of the consequences of shutting nuclear power stations and blocking fracking.
- Keep smiling.
How much longer can current energy policy last?
After all this – and a lot more nonsense – the New Year has opened with an increasing assault on what passes for our energy policy. Nobody quite ridiculed it with the panache of Douglas Carswell, Conservative MP for Clacton. He was quoted in the USA as saying “We are spending money that we don’t have to solve a problem that does not exist at the behest of people we did not elect”.
More prosaically, the International Energy Agency and the UK Committee on Climate Change drew attention to the risk of British industry migrating to the USA because of the competitive effect of shale gas that, to repeat, the so- called greens are, of course, trying to block in the UK.
Sir Andrew Motion, former Poet Laureate and president of the CPRE, accused the entire political class of “industrialising the countryside” through the spread of wind and solar farms. They were, he said, putting development – he might have said “and the wrong development in the bargain” – ahead of the protection of green spaces.
The consequences of “knowing the future”
Malcolm Grimston, a SONE member and an assistant fellow on energy at Chatham House, put it very simply: “Current energy policy is unsustainable”. Which brings us to Dieter Helm, Professor of Energy Policy at Oxford University. He had a real old go in The Times just before Christmas. This is what he wrote:
“Ed Miliband, Chris Huhne and Ed Davey – the three most recent Energy Secretaries – all agreed on one thing: the price of oil and gas would keep going up. It was therefore their job to protect us from ever more expensive fossil fuels. Armed with this certain knowledge of the future, it was a small step to arguing that Britain had to promote current renewables as a way out of the future hell of fossil-fuel dependent energy prices.
“By about 2020 it was assumed that expensive technologies such as wind farms and solar panels would be competitive against what would then be much more expensive fossil fuels. Add in a bit of energy efficiency and Ministers could confidently predict that household energy bills would be 8% lower by 2020 than they would have without their policies. Almost everything that could be wrong with this is in fact wrong, and it explains the mess that British energy policy has got itself into…
“The fallacy of ‘knowing the future’ is all too seductive, especially when it is convenient for picking politically favoured ‘winners’. The scale of the resulting mistakes is awesome. Britain as well as Europe is saddled with uncompetitive energy prices. These render energy-intensive industries uncompetitive and inflict pain on households. But the real tragedy is that it has done nothing in the fight against climate change”.
A Telegraph lament
In two devastating articles in the Daily Telegraph on January 10 and 17, Bruno Waterfield, reporting from Brussels on EU energy policy, reached two conclusions:
- “History seems certain to judge EU energy policy as well-meaning but wrong and counter-productive by almost every measure”.
- “Germany has become a cautionary tale for Europe, an example of where the wrong energy policies are damaging, perhaps mortally wounding, its economy, punishing consumers and the poor while undermining the green objectives of reduced CO2 emissions it set out to achieve”.
We ask again: how long can current energy policy last?
Your secretary blasts away
Finally, your Secretary got in on the act. He was invited by the New Civil Engineer to contribute a critique of energy policy to this month’s issue. This is what he wrote:
“Why are our politicians new regarded with something approaching despair? Just look at energy policy. There is no rhyme nor reason to it. I start from first principles: if you believe there is a problem called global warming – and the evidence is weak – then the least you can do is to tackle it effectively and economically. Current energy policy does neither.
“Wind and solar power simply cannot be described as low carbon when fossil fuelled power sources have to be on tap to fill the gap when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun sets. UK CO2 emissions still persistently refuse to fall yet our vacant Ministers insist we need a lot more of offshore wind and solar power even though they are the most inefficient and expensive forms of power generation.
“Not a single wind turbine or solar panel would be erected in the UK but for the massive subsidies paid by the consumer. This gives a Government-imposed turn to the price screw. It has made electricity in the renewables-mad Germany and Denmark the dearest in Europe. And why? Because our politicians have signed up like sheep to EU renewable targets that are steadily eroding European as well as British competitiveness.
You couldn’t make it up
Throw in a mystifying belief in energy efficiency and so called ‘smart’ meters and you have an energy policy that is a spectacular failure. By all means let us use energy efficiently, but don’t kid yourself it will render new power stations redundant. For one thing, the more efficiently you use energy the cheaper you make it and therefore use more of it. That is the story of our industrialisation.
“As for ‘smart’ meters, there is next to no evidence that they will change the average person’s behaviour. And you will not reduce demand significantly without a whole new outlook on life – unless, of course, you force people to save through excruciating prices or use ‘smart’ meters just to turn off supply.
“In spite of all this nonsense, Britain will not make the slightest impact on global CO2 emissions when more than 1,000 cheap coal-fired power stations are planned for this world while we close ours. You would never imagine that over the past 50 years we had demonstrated that nuclear power is the one sure route to secure, low carbon energy and then effectively destroyed our nuclear industry. You couldn’t make it up. Meanwhile, the threat of blackouts looms”
The only thing that might be said in mitigation of Britain’s politicians is that they have at least opened the way to a more sensible future by accepting nuclear development. They would help their cause if they showed some enthusiasm for it.
A patron strikes back
We are grateful to all members who take up the nuclear cause in the media. One of our patrons, Sir Christopher Audland, former Director-General for Energy at the European Commission, fired off a sharp letter to the Westmoreland Gazette’s issue of January 9 in response to a most inventive correspondent. These extracts reveal his vivid imagination:
“Mr O’Brien says it is believed that 1m died as a result of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. But the UN, which has been carefully monitoring health effects ever since, will currently vouch for only about 60 deaths as a result of it….It is true that there have been several thousand cases of thyroid cancer but that is a normally treatable condition and the high figure was due to Soviet failure to provide adequate services at the time.
“Mr O’Brien says that 1,600 people were killed just evacuating the area around Fukushima. This claim will amaze the Japanese Government. Moreover the WHO does not expect any observable increase in cancer rates, whether inside or outside Japan.
“Mr O’Brien listed a whole series of nuclear problems at Sellafield. This will surprise the people of Cumbria since few have even heard of them, apart from the Windscale pile fire nearly 60 years ago. In any case, there is no evidence that nuclear operations in Cumbria have caused a single death. Countrywide, background radiation is over 10 times higher than any exposure due to Sellafield. I leave Mr O’Brien to his prejudices, but fear his wind turbines will not keep him warm”.
In response to the chairman’s letter with the December Newsletter, we have now had a positive response from more than a quarter of the members to the invitation to have the Newsletter and Nuclear Issues – and also separately the Scientific Alliance bulletins – sent to them by downloadable e-mail. If you have yet to reply, please e-mail the Secretary on email@example.com.
We regret to record the death of a loyal member, Peter Sanderson, of
Talepiece: The Daily Telegraph has reported that DECC has withdrawn from publication an “infographic” that the wind and solar industries found “unhelpful”. It showed that, whereas wind required 250,000 acres to generate enough power for 6m homes (when the wind is blowing) and solar 130,000 acres (when the sun is shining), nuclear needed only 430 acres at any time.