The Moral Case for Nuclear Power

My response to Jonathon Porritt’s arguments – and to his highly personal invective.

By George Monbiot, with Chris Goodall, published on monbiot.com, 8th August 2011

This is the long version of a shorter article published on the Guardian’s website

When I launched my discussion with Jonathon Porritt, I did so “in the spirit of both debate and reconciliation”. I couldn’t see why the question needed to be divisive; we both have the same aims: to try to reduce human impacts on the biosphere and to find the quickest and most effective means of preventing runaway climate change. When I submitted my article questioning Jonathon’s position on nuclear power, I secured space for him to reply on the Guardian’s website, and hoped he would take up my offer of friendly engagement.

To say that this is not the spirit in which he has responded is an understatement. I regret the highly personal and vicious tone of his response. This is now the third time in recent months that I have asked Jonathon to tone down his vitriolic personal remarks. I struggle to understand why they are necessary or how they help us to resolve the dilemmas in which we are all enmeshed.

Before taking this discussion any further, we should ask ourselves what our aim is. Is it to stop climate breakdown, or is it to engineer the maximum roll-out of renewable power? Sometimes it seems to me that greens are putting renewables first, climate change second. We have no obligation to support the renewables industry – or any other industry – against its competitors. Our obligation is to persuade policy makers to bring down emissions and reduce other environmental impacts as quickly and effectively as possible. The moment we start saying we won’t accept one technology under any circumstances, or we must use another technology whether it’s appropriate or not is the moment at which we make that aim harder to achieve.

Jonathon is right to say that we could meet all our electricity needs through renewables. But it would take longer and cost more. He acknowledges this by setting his date for decarbonising the electricity supply through renewables and efficiency alone at 2050, while the Committee on Climate Change is seeking to do so, through nuclear, renewables, efficiency and some carbon capture and storage, by 2030. When the government’s statutory advisors propose a shorter timescale for cutting emissions than one of Britain’s leading greens, we should ask ourselves some hard questions about our priorities. The longer it takes, the less likely we are to prevent runaway climate change.

If we shut the door on nuclear power, we create a generation gap. As the committee points out, the maximum likely contribution to our electricity supply from renewables by 2030 is 45%, and the maximum likely contribution from carbon capture and storage is 15%. Where will the balance come from?

To my utter amazement, Jonathon’s answer appears to be unabated fossil fuel.

I say “appears”, because something odd happens in the paragraph in which he discusses it. He first proposes that the generation gap should be filled by more gas plants with carbon capture and storage (CCS), but then acknowledges that CCS is “hugely expensive … and still unproven at scale.” He then points out that “gas is relatively cheap, relatively easily available, and relatively easy to build.” This, as he has just acknowledged, applies only to gas without CCS. So what exactly is he calling for as his “generating bridge”? Gas with or without CCS? It looks as if a fudge has taken place here, and Jonathon urgently needs to clear it up.

If so, it’s similar to the fudge proposed by the British government in its electricity market reform white paper. Not only is the government prepared to build a new generation of unabated gas plants, it is also exempting the supposedly-abated plants from restrictions on their CO2 emissions. While other power plants can produce up to 450 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour, CCS demonstration plants are exempted even from this very generous limit. This looks like an expectation that the demonstration programme will fail – and we’ll be stuck with a new generation of unabated coal and gas plants.

He talks of “frittering away at least another decade in pursuit of some unattainable nuclear dream”. But nuclear power is eminently attainable. Unlike CCS, it has already been proven at scale and will produce low-carbon electricity from the outset. The likely outcome of Jonathon’s contradictory bridge proposal is that we fritter away another 40 years, in which CO2 emissions rise because we shut down and failed to replace our nuclear power plants.

In one respect we in the UK are fortunate: someone else is making these mistakes, and we have an opportunity to learn from them. The someone else is Germany.

In last week’s New Scientist, David Strahan points out that Germany’s decision to shut its nuclear plants will, despite its massive investment in new renewables, create an extra 300 million tonnes of carbon dioxide between now and 2020. That will cancel out almost all the savings (335Mt) brought about in the entire European Union by the new Energy Efficiency Directive.

In June, Angela Merkel announced that she would bridge the generation gap caused by shutting down nuclear plants by doubling the volume of coal-fired power stations Germany will build over the next ten years. Outrageously, her government will help pay for them with a fund originally intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This shows what a fix you can get yourself into when getting rid of nuclear power takes precedence over dealing with climate change.

This isn’t the only respect in which Jonathon suggests we should follow Germany’s disastrous precedent. He also wants us to repeat its experiment with solar power. He claims that “Germany plans to generate 50% of its day-time electricity from solar by 2020 – with installed capacity of 52 GW.”

Keep an eye on that word “day-time”. Day-time on certain hot sunny days perhaps, but this does next to nothing to solve the supply problem. In 2010 Germany had an installed capacity of 17.3GW of solar power. This produces about 2% of its year-round electricity. So 52GW, which will be installed at an astronomical cost, is likely to produce around 6% of its total supply.

What’s more, much of the electricity it generates will be of little use. Peak electricity demand in the UK (and presumably in other northern European nations) takes place at 5-7pm on a winter’s evening, when solar panels are producing nothing. Peak solar output takes place in the middle of hot summer days, when demand is much lower. Solar electricity in a cold, high-latitude country displaces none of the coal and gas plants currently producing electricity on winter evenings. The money being spent on it is largely wasted.

An analysis by the Breakthrough Institute finds that the entire German solar sector produces less than half the power that Fukushima Daiichi – a single nuclear complex – generated before it was hit by the tsunami. To build a Fukushima-sized solar industry in Germany would, it estimates, cost $155bn. To build a Fukushima-sized nuclear plant would cost $53.5bn. And the power would be there on winter evenings.

Jonathon dismisses the detailed cost estimates produced by the Committee on Climate Change. In doing so, he relies on the strangest of sources: a note of just 400 words written by Andrew Broadbent, a man whose job is “modelling the competition between shopping locations across Great Britain, to predict where people will shop in the next few years.”

This would be an odd choice under any circumstances. It’s stranger still when you find that the two main claims Jonathon extracts from Broadbent’s note – that “the principal source for the committee’s estimates” is the figures prepared by its consultants Mott MacDonald in June 2010, and that “Mott MacDonald produced a new report in May 2011 which pretty much contradicts its own 2010 report” – are flat wrong. The cost estimates the committee uses actually come from Mott MacDonald’s 2011 report.

This shows the importance of reading the source material, and not relying on other people’s interpretation of it. If you are going to accuse someone else of “inadequate research” and “untrustworthy sources”, your own work needs to be a lot more robust than this.

Jonathon warns that “considerable scepticism is warranted in assessing the reliability of estimates from the industry”. He’s right, and this is why I avoid them in favour of figures from independent bodies. If only he did the same! He relies for his estimates of solar costs on a study (by Ernst and Young) commissioned by the UK Solar Trade Association. Worse still, the study’s predictions for the reduction in solar costs come from “UK solar industry data”. If ever there was a case for “considerable scepticism in assessing the reliability of estimates from the industry”, here it is.

He says that “every billion that goes back to the nuclear industry is a billion that isn’t going into retro-fitting our hopelessly inefficient housing stock – and simultaneously sorting out the continuing scandal of extraordinarily high levels of fuel poverty here in the UK.” If these are his concerns, he should be far more exercised about the billions we spend on solar PV. The current feed-in tariff of 43 pence per kilowatt hour is several times higher even than the wildest cost estimates for nuclear power. The money we spend per unit of electricity on solar could have bought us a lot more efficiency than the money we spend per unit on nuclear.

Jonathon goes on to discuss the hidden subsidy nuclear power enjoys as a result of the lack of insured liabilities. The figures he uses are, to say the least, very odd. The study he cites prices a worst-case (level 7) disaster in Germany at over 6 trillion euros, whereas the maximum projected cost of the level 7 Fukushima disaster, even assuming that the government buys all the land within 20 km of the plant, is $245bn. Could the study’s scientifically-groundless estimate have anything to do with the fact that it was commissioned by the German Renewable Energy Federation? What happened to that “considerable scepticism in assessing the reliability of estimates from the industry”?

But if unfunded liabilities are a killer argument, where does this leave the extra CO2 that will be produced by abandoning nuclear power? Who’s insuring us against the impacts that will cause? With nuclear power you get a small chance that things will go badly wrong. If they do, a small number of people could – in the worst possible case – die, and several hundred square kilometres would need to be evacuated. Beyond a certain level of climate change there is a very high chance – approaching certainty – that things will go badly wrong. When they do, they have the potential to kill hundreds of millions of people, and to necessitate the evacuation of much of the earth’s surface. No one’s insuring us against that.

The same goes for Jonathon’s comments about intergenerational justice. He maintains that the industry’s costs will fall on future generations. But the prices we are discussing – the prices in the very report that he mistakenly cites as undermining the climate change committee’s case – already incorporate the costs of decommissioning and waste disposal, and nuclear still comes out cheaper than most of the alternatives: not just today, but for projects beginning right up to 2040*. But what about the consequences for intergenerational justice arising from the extra climate change caused by abandoning nuclear power? No one is setting money aside to meet these costs. No one could.

(*See Figure 4: Projected Levelised costs for projects starting construction in 2040)

Jonathon maintains that before 2009, companies like EDF and Eon were happy to allow the government to commission a mixture of atomic energy and renewables, but that since then they’ve been lobbying against renewables “with growing stridency”. As far as I can tell, it’s exactly the other way round.

The most recent evidence I can find of EDF and Eon lobbying against renewables dates from July 2009. Since then, both companies have made major investments in renewable power. EDF intends to install around 1,000 megawatts of renewables in the UK by 2012. In April it put up 1.5bn euros to buy out minority shareholders in its solar and wind power unit, as it saw new opportunities opening up in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. It now demands of government that “diverse energy sources, including renewables and nuclear, are needed.” Eon has also been spending heavily on wind and other renewables. This isn’t to suggest that they’ve become better or more responsible companies; it’s simply that they are exploiting new opportunities to make money.

But, if Jonathon is right, they are simultaneously spending billions on renewable energy and lobbying against its deployment. If he has evidence for this proposition, he needs to produce it, but so far we have only assertion. The fact that EDF and Eon are currently investing in both renewables and nuclear suggests they’re confident that the two systems can co-exist.

There’s plenty more I could say on all the points Jonathon raises, but I’ve already gone on for far too long. Whatever solutions we favour, let’s discuss them without accusing each other of bad faith. Amid other gratuitous insults, Jonathon dismisses me as a “pawn of the nuclear industry”. Would he say the same about David MacKay, James Hansen, James Lovelock and Barry Brook? All of us, independently of each other, have come to the same conclusion: that abandoning nuclear power at a time of escalating greenhouse gas emissions is far more dangerous than maintaining it. To abandon it in the knowledge that much of that power will be replaced with unabated fossil fuel is even worse. It is hard to think of any issue with greater moral consequences. We have a duty to get this right, using reliable evidence, not wishful thinking.

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