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BB200605, Policy News

UK Environmental Audit Committee sheds light on the nuclear renewables debate

31.01.2007

A cross party committee of MPs in the UK, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) of the House of Commons, has analysed the thorny question, persistently digging into the governments and most particularly the Prime Minister’s side, of whether renewable energy can cost effectively substitute nuclear in an energy mix designed to deal with climate change.

In the report, published on the 16th April, entitled: ‘Keeping the lights on: Nuclear, Renewables and Climate Change,’ the choice of nuclear is slammed and the choice of low carbon alternative technologies and natural gas is held up as the only compelling solution.

New nuclear build is an over-extended investment that will not manage to fill the electricity generation gap opened up by retirement of old plant, nor to fulfill its much trumpeted role of mitigator in the looming climate change crisis. The EAC bases its evidence on submissions from a huge number of industry associations, institutions, and stakeholder groups including several nuclear bodies. Nuclear is a clambering investment. No nuclear power plant has ever been built anywhere near on time or on budget in the UK, as Walt Patterson, head of the energy and environment unit at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (RIIA) points out in a current RIIA article. The UK’s most modern plant, Sizewell B, using pressurized water reactor technology cost, at £3 billion, almost double the original allocation (£1.8 bn). It also took 7 years to start construction after the decision was made to build it, and the construction ran over-time by 7 years. The EAC doubts the likelihood that investors will want to commit to 70 years of nuclear generation, with all the deep set costs and risks that it entails, instead of investing in rapidly evolving and relatively quick installation renewable energy technologies. British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) itself was cited in the report as saying that in addition to the fact that the market was now deregulated, “the regulatory and approvals processes in place in the past, which allowed delays and re-design to become the norm, would act as a major deterrent to private sector investors.”

The EAC’s main concern is whether the framework in the UK is sufficiently conducive to ensure enough investment takes place to keep the lights on by 2016. Instead of being preoccupied with the nuclear question, it says: “The real issue which the Government is failing to address is whether the policy and regulatory framework in place is sufficient to stimulate the growth of lower-carbon generation on the scale required.” It asserts that progress in deploying key technologies, citing offshore wind, carbon capture and storage and microgeneration, is inadequate.

The 15 to 20GW of generating plant that nuclear decommissioning combined with coal retirement will make way for by 2016 affords a tremendous opportunity to place renewable energy firmly within the mainstream of energy supply and allow its benefits of clean, free fuel to start showing through. And this is what EWEA urges - to turn the climate change and energy security challenge into an opportunity. The report does seize the dimension of the potential of renewable energy and energy efficiency, addind that the gap will largely be filled by new gas-fired power stations, supplemented by a significant growth in renewables.

According to the report, nuclear can only be an option if it can count on complete government support; it has always benefited from enormous government subsidy to prop it up. The UK Government continues to shy away from a firm decision on nuclear. It maintains its line is not to prescribe a fuel mix but to establish a liberalised market and let the market make the investment decisions. But if this is the case, nuclear will not stand a chance: it simply could not survive in a liberalised market. The government should realise that nuclear energy and a fully liberalised market are mutually exclusive.

The lack of clarity in the government’s position reflected in the muddled orientation of the current Energy Review fuels this concern about what the government is actually supporting because the development of offshore wind, marine or micro-CHP requires dedicated political support in order to be launched properly. The Committee laments that the Energy Review “does not appear to have resulted from a due process of monitoring and accountability.” It concludes: “We remain convinced that the vision contained in the 2003 White Paper – with its focus on energy efficiency and renewables as cornerstones of a future sustainable energy policy – remains correct. What is now needed is a far greater degree of commitment from the Government in implementing it.”

A key premise of the report’s stance is that since energy is “embedded within the very fabric of the material world” and “underpins every aspect of society…No society can claim to be sustainable unless it is based on environmentally benign and sustainable forms of energy provision.”

The report set about to examine the reality behind the vision expressed in the White Paper (published in February 2003), of renewables and energy efficiency fulfilling future demand, without recourse to nuclear new-build. The research reported from the UK Energy Research Council (see story below) unveils a detailed practical exposé of how wind energy can contribute 20% of UK electricity supply without any noteworthy reliability or cost effects. It analyses the issue of system margin and spinning reserve which critics of wind point to as defeating arguments, and finds that they are not the problems some believe them to be. Walt Patterson points out in his article that nuclear units have to have much more redundant standby generation, or spinning reserve, than wind in case a unit has a fault (which it frequently does.)

The gap between the rise in electricity demand and the retirement of old nuclear and coal fleet is startling, and demands serious analysis and political attention. The UK currently consumes around 350 TWh of electricity each year, from around 76 GW of generating capacity. If demand for electricity grows at its current rate by 1.5% per year for the next 15 years, the UK will be consuming around 400 TWh per year. If coal-fired and nuclear power stations are phased out as expected, the UK will have around 56 GW, and this includes growth in renewable capacity, producing around 200 TWh of electricity – barely half the requirement.

The report underlines how under-developed wind power is at present. In terms of total renewable electricity supplied in 2004, wind contributed 4.4% compared to a giddy 84% generated by biofuels – mainly landfill gas. The potential for wind is vast in the UK and at least is increasing now at record rates according to the British Wind Energy Association (BWEA). But much of it still gets caught in the net of development barriers. A one-stop shop as in Denmark would clear many of these.

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