Turning Together

I challenge Jonathon Porritt to explain his contention that nuclear power and renewables are incompatible.

By George Monbiot, published on the Guardian’s website, 27th May 2011

I know that others don’t share my puzzlement, but I don’t understand why the nuclear question needs to divide the environment movement. Our underlying aim is the same: we all want to reduce human impacts on the biosphere. We all agree that our consumption of resources must be reduced, as sharply as possible. We all question the model of endless economic growth.

Almost everyone in this movement also recognises that – even with the maximum possible conservation of resources and efficiency in the way they are used – we will not be able to bring our consumption down to zero. This is especially the case with electricity. Those who have been following the issue closely know that even with massive reductions in energy demand, electricity use will have to rise, in order to remove fossil fuels from both transport and heating.

The idea, on which there’s also wide agreement within this movement, is that the petrol and diesel used to power cars, buses and trains and the gas and oil used to heat our houses should be partly or mostly replaced by low-carbon electricity. That means an increase in electricity supply, even as, with sweeping efficiency measures in all sectors, our total energy consumption falls.

So the only question which divides us is how this low-carbon electricity should be produced. I don’t much care about which technology is used, as long as the other impacts are as small as possible, and greenhouse gas emissions are reduced quickly and efficiently. None of our options is easy and painless.

Windfarms are now running into massive public opposition, not least because of the new power lines required to connect them to the grid. The costs of other kinds of renewables are high, and their potential to supply much of our electricity is low.

The capture and storage of the carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels has yet to be demonstrated at the scale required to show that it’s a viable option. It is also expensive, and still involves mining coal and drilling for gas. That means continued environmental impacts, which are likely to escalate as shale gas is extracted and coal is increasingly mined through open-casting.

Nuclear power remains an object of deep public suspicion. The advantage it has over renewables is that production takes place on a compact site, rather than being spread over the countryside, and that new power lines are not required in places where they haven’t been built before. The disadvantage it shares with coal and gas is that it depends upon the extraction of uranium, which, like mining fossil fuels, imposes a high environmental cost. In principle this could be overcome by moving to fourth generation nuclear technologies. Not only do they not require fresh supplies of uranium, but some of the proposed technologies consume existing nuclear waste. None of them has yet been demonstrated at scale however.

The large-scale deployment of any of these options – renewables, carbon capture and storage or nuclear – will take between ten and twenty years.

These are hard physical and political constraints. There is no point in tearing each other apart over issues we can do little about. We can agree to disagree over what the mix should be, and we can keep debating all the issues it involves, hopefully in a friendly manner. The likelihood is that, because of the problems faced by all three technologies, we’ll probably need some of each. But is this possible?

According to Jonathon Porritt, it isn’t. In a recent blog post discussing renewables and nuclear power, he asserts that

“It’s becoming clearer and clearer that we’re now into a strict fight in terms of those two options. The days when people talked about “co-existence” are long gone; this is now either/or, not both/and.”

That statement would require an explanation at any time, and unfortunately Jonathon doesn’t provide one. But coming just after the Committee on Climate Change published its Renewable Energy Review, it needs even more unpacking.

The committee is the body that recommends the government’s carbon targets, and offers advice on how they might best be met. Of all the agencies involved in these questions, it has the most influence over government policy, as we saw during the bust-up within the Cabinet this month over whether or not its target should be adopted (the committee won after Cameron intervened). What the committee recommends is what is most likely to happen. In its latest report, published earlier this month, it advises that:

“The optimal policy is to pursue a portfolio approach, with each of the different technologies playing a role.”

It suggests the following, illustrative scenario for decarbonising electricity by 2030:

40% renewables

40% nuclear

15% carbon capture and storage

Up to 10% gas without carbon capture and storage

It raised no difficulties about co-existence between nuclear and renewables. And why should there be? Why can’t nuclear provide the baseload power, and renewables and carbon capture and storage most of the rest? Why can’t it be both/and, rather than either/or?

Here are some of the other things the report said:

“Nuclear power currently appears to be the most cost-effective of the low-carbon technologies”.

This will come as a surprise to many greens. Applying a 10% discount rate, the committee suggests that by 2030 nuclear power will cost between 5 and 10 pence per kilowatt hour. I rang the committee to check: yes, this does take into account the costs of decommissioning and waste disposal.

Onshore wind will cost between 7 and 8.5 pence, and the other renewables are more expensive, in some cases much more expensive. The Severn Barrage, which Jonathon favours, comes out worst of all, at a staggering 21-31p.

If you apply a 7.5% discount rate, nuclear does even better against renewables (because of the higher up-front capital costs).

It also says that

“Although there is a finite supply of uranium available, this will not be a limiting factor for investment in nuclear capacity for the next 50 years.”

And it reminds us that France added 48GW of nuclear capacity – equivalent to more than half of our entire electricity system – in just ten years.

So my questions to Jonathon are as follows:

What has the Committee on Climate Change got wrong?

Could you explain your contention that nuclear power and renewables can’t co-exist?

Do you believe that renewables are a better option than nuclear power in all circumstances? Or would you agree that beyond a certain level of difficulty, of cost, of visual intrusion and other environmental impacts (damming estuaries and rivers, building power lines across rare and beautiful landscapes for example), nuclear becomes a more attractive option?

If you are to exclude nuclear entirely, what should the mix of electricity generation in this country be?

I would like to hear his answers to these questions. In the spirit of both debate and reconciliation, I’ve secured space for him to reply on the Guardian’s website. Over to you Jonathon.