A Letter to David Cameron

Countering the letter sent to him by four former directors of Friends of the Earth

From George Monbiot, Stephen Tindale, Fred Pearce, Michael Hanlon and Mark Lynas.

The Prime Minister
10 Downing Street
London SW1A 2AA

By fax and email

15 March 2012

Dear Mr Cameron

We write because we believe you have been misled by four prominent environmentalists who contacted you recently about nuclear power. This quartet – Jonathon Porritt, Charles Secrett, Tom Burke and Tony Juniper – were all in the past directors of Friends of the Earth, an organisation which also put its official seal of approval on the letter sent by them to you on 12 March 2012.

We believe their advice to be wrong both in fact and interpretation, and feel that if you act on it without further consideration of the alternatives, you risk threatening both the energy security of the UK and our climate-change targets.

As writers and thinkers who are interested in and concerned with environmental issues, our job is to assess the technological and policy options on climate change as objectively as possible. Independently of each other, we have all reached the conclusion in recent years that the gravity of the climate crisis necessitates a re-examination of deeply-held objections still shared by many in the green movement towards nuclear power, including, until recently some of our own number. Needless to say, none of us has any financial or professional relationship with the nuclear industry whatsoever.

We find the 12 March letter objectionable on several counts. Firstly, we are disturbed by the jingoistic tone the authors adopt towards our closest neighbour and EU partner, France. The letter insinuates, and the accompanying press release states in its very first sentence, that having French companies involved in delivering a substantial portion of the UK’s energy supply is somehow a threat to our national security. We are sure you will agree that countries working together irrespective of nationalism must be the best way of tackling both climate change and energy security.

Secondly, and most importantly, we believe that abandoning nuclear new-build in the UK – as the authors propose we should do – would be a serious environmental mistake. The letter holds up Germany and Japan as models to be emulated, but the truth is that both countries are increasing their use of fossil fuels to cover their nuclear shortfall, and carbon emissions are rising accordingly and will continue to do so. From an environmental as well as a public health perspective, the most urgent priority is to phase out coal – an issue the authors of the letter neglect even to mention, let alone address. The risk of policy failure here is substantial – abandoning nuclear risks putting your government in breach of the Climate Change Act and thereby vulnerable to legal challenge.

Nuclear remains the only viable large-scale source of low-carbon baseload power available to energy consumers in the UK today. Whilst we enthusiastically support research into new technologies, the deployment of renewables, demand-management and efficiency, these combined cannot, without the help of atomic energy, power a modern energy-hungry economy at the same time as reducing carbon emissions.

For nuclear and renewables, as the Climate Change Committee has rightly pointed out in numerous reports, this is not an either-or choice; we need increasing deployments of both in the UK’s energy mix in the future (see appendix 1).
Thirdly, the 12 March letter focuses significantly on economics, in short, arguing that nuclear is too expensive. We would point out that even if this were true, the writers themselves would have helped make it so by devoting decades to campaigning against the technology during their tenures at Friends of the Earth. In addition, if anyone has yet invented an inexpensive low-carbon energy source, we have yet to hear about it – Friends of the Earth today campaigns vociferously in favour of the retention of the solar feed-in-tariff, which delivers perhaps the most expensive, unreliable and socially regressive electricity ever deployed anywhere. Once again, we would refer you to the Climate Change Committee, which found that nuclear was potentially the cheapest of all low-carbon options available by 2030 (appendix 2).

None of this is to suggest that we are uncritical supporters of EDF, Areva or the EPR reactors proposed for some UK new-build sites, or that nuclear power – like any energy source – does not embody risks. It is true that EPRs under construction in Finland and France have gone seriously over budget (although this is not the case for the same reactor designs being constructed in China), and it may well be that the Westinghouse AP1000 is a more promising option for British utilities.

Some of us have already written about the PRISM reactor offered by GE-Hitachi, a fourth-generation fast reactor design which can generate zero-carbon power by consuming our plutonium and spent fuel stockpiles, thereby tackling both the nuclear waste and climate problems simultaneously; it is currently under consideration by the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority as a promising alternative to Areva’s MOX fuel for plutonium management. Tom Burke has already declared himself opposed to this new technology, we suspect before properly considering it.

Moreover, it is abundantly obvious that the authors of the 12 March letter to you are not against nuclear power because they think it is too expensive, but that they think it is too expensive because they are already against nuclear power. This reflexive ideological opposition, institutionalised by the NGOs which they have led and worked within over many decades, is clearly not a good basis for a truly sound and independent political analysis. All four additionally act as ambassadors for the renewables lobby, which we consider an interest group like any other. The job of a government is not to pander to any interest group, but to formulate policy on the basis of sound analysis based on empirical evidence rather than assertion.

Finally, we appreciate that you are now under considerable pressure from two different but equally vocal lobbies. One, consisting of those who deny that climate change is happening, urges you to abandon all support for low-carbon energy and instead to refocus on fossil fuels like coal and shale gas. The other, encompassing much of the orthodox green movement, insists that you should phase out nuclear and replace it with renewables and gas. Having examined the evidence and written extensively about it, we feel that both lobbies are wrong, and both stand to do equal harm to our efforts to tackle climate change and keep the country energy secure in future decades if they are allowed to have a significant influence on government policy. We note that both sides appear to be opposed but are actually united in supporting a permanent UK dependence on imported gas, which is of course a fossil fuel.

We urge you to stand firm in support of this country’s international and domestic commitments on climate change, and to continue working towards a regulatory enabling environment which will encourage all low-carbon energy options, in order to achieve this end.

Yours faithfully

George Monbiot, Stephen Tindale, Fred Pearce, Michael Hanlon, Mark Lynas

cc: Edward Davey, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change
George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer

Appendix 1:

The Climate Change Committee states the following:
“It is clear that achieving sector decarbonisation will require significant investment in nuclear, wind and CCS. Trying to decarbonise without one or more of these options would raise costs and risks of meeting the carbon budget to which we are now legally committed. For example, taking nuclear out of the mix would result in increased investment in unabated gas fired generation and associated emissions above budgeted levels.”
The Committee also projects that the maximum likely contribution of renewables to our electricity supply (mainly via offshore wind) by 2030 is 45%, and the maximum likely contribution from carbon capture and storage is 15%. Unless nuclear power fills the gap, our national carbon targets will most likely therefore be unattainable. As Germany is currently discovering, replacing fossil fuels with renewables becomes doubly difficult if renewables also have to replace nuclear at the same time.
Moreover, it is worrying that at the very end of their longer ‘briefing note’ about electricity market reform and new nuclear, the authors admit that their ill-defined vision of renewables deployment is actually entirely dependent on gas generation supply to cover the periods when the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining. This gas would supposedly be fitted with carbon capture and storage, a technology option which we note has yet to be deployed at any significant scale anywhere in the world in the electricity generation process. To put all our eggs in the CCS basket seems to us to be a near-certain recipe for climate change failure, and one which additionally leaves us permanently dependent on fossil fuels.

Appendix 2

We would refer here to the study conducted by Mott McDonald for the Climate Change Committee, published in 2011. Acknowldeging the uncertainties, with a discount rate of 7.5%, the 2030 levelised cost ranges vary from 4.0-7.5 p/kWh for nuclear to 7.5- 11.5 p/kWh for offshore wind, and 9.0-20.5 p/kWh for solar PV. Note that nuclear is the cheapest of all possible options, including unabated gas (with a carbon price) in the lower scenario. For comparison, gas is 5.0-13.5 p/kWh.

Appendix 3

George Monbiot, author and journalist.
Stephen Tindale, Associate Fellow, Centre for European Reform.
Fred Pearce, author and journalist.
Michael Hanlon, author and journalist.
Mark Lynas, author, journalist and Visiting Research Associate at Oxford University’s School of Geography and the Environment.