nuclear

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Let’s face it: energy efficiency is boring when compared to the (relative) excitement of developing new sources of low-carbon electricity or heat. The popular science magazines are full of articles on new forms of solar panel and the latest designs for wind turbines. Improving the insulation of ordinary homes, shifting to LED lighting or increasing the take-up of heat pumps rarely command the attention of editors.

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Sizewell B

Until this week, we thought that Sizewell B was likely to be the most expensive nuclear power station built in the UK. Image source: World Nuclear Association.

The Guardian newspaper of Monday 19 October broke the story that the UK government is preparing to guarantee a minimum price for carbon dioxide emissions to encourage the development of nuclear power stations. Putting a high cost on greenhouse gas emissions from power stations will force up the wholesale price of electricity, ensuring a better financial return for nuclear power stations (and for renewables such as wind). The decision to create a floor price for carbon demonstrates that the full costs of nuclear technology are probably well above today’s wholesale electricity prices. We may well need nuclear power but we are going to pay heavily for it. The government’s optimistic noises from 2006 to the middle of this year about the commercial viability of nuclear power have turned out to be wrong.

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Ed Miliband, Minister for the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Photograph: David Levene/Guardian.

Ed Miliband, Minister for the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Photograph: David Levene/Guardian.

The government wants to emphasise the affordability of climate change mitigation. It produces low estimates of the cost of low-carbon technologies. In the recent 2009 budget documents, the government estimated a cost of 1% of GDP to meet the tough new 2020 targets. In his pronouncement on carbon capture at coal-fired power stations, energy and climate change secretary Ed Miliband later said that his proposals will add 2% to electricity bills.

Are these numbers reasonable? Professor Sir David King, the former chief scientific adviser, says no. In a BBC interview of 26 April, he indicates that he thinks that the cost of reducing the UK’s emissions is much higher than the government indicates but also that the financial implications of not dealing with the climate change threat are far higher than even Nick Stern suggests.

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The Committee on Climate Change says the most important prospective source of cuts in greenhouse gases lay in the ‘decarbonisation’ of electricity generation. Photograph: Graham Turner/Guardian.

The Committee on Climate Change says the most important prospective source of cuts in greenhouse gases lay in the ‘decarbonisation’ of electricity generation. Photograph: Graham Turner/Guardian.

The budget confirmed the acceptance of the Committee on Climate Change‘s recommendation for carbon emissions in 2020. The UK will have to reduce its CO2 output by about 110m tonnes by 2020, equivalent to a 21% reduction on actual emissions in 2005 (and 34% on the 1990 figure). The proposed rate of emissions reduction is far faster than the UK has achieved thus far and the chancellor’s budget shows the government has started to recognise the scale of the challenge.

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In today’s Independent newspaper (London, Monday 23 February) I argue that we may need to accept some new nuclear power stations. I put forward the view that the trench warfare between the pro-nuclear groups and those that support renewables means that progress towards ‘decarbonising’ electricity generation in the UK is too slow. We probably need to invest in many different types of non fossil-fuel generation as rapidly as we can if we are to meet the tough targets for UK emissions reduction so painfully won by groups such as Friends of the Earth. We no longer have the luxury of ruling out nuclear expansion.

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Copyright: Joe Gough – Fotolia.com.

The UK government’s enthusiasm for the construction of nuclear power stations is based on a May 2007 consultation document[1] published by the Department of Trade and Industry (now BERR). This paper argued that nuclear offered a financially viable way of generating electricity, broadly competitive with fossil fuels. It correctly pointed out that the cost of nuclear energy is largely determined by how much a plant costs to build, not by uranium prices or by the price of disposing of nuclear waste.

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The nuclear New Deal

I’ve just been lucky enough to see Gordon Brown’s notes for a speech he will give in a few weeks time at the Walter Mitty Institute. It may be worth sharing some of his thoughts.

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Sizewell B nuclear power station
Sizewell B nuclear power station

In the past three months, John Hutton, the UK government minister in charge of industry, has publicly backed an expansion of both nuclear and of offshore wind. Is this good for the UK’s climate targets? Possibly not.

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The new Finnish nuclear reactor at Olkiluoto (OLK3)
The new Finnish nuclear reactor at Olkiluoto (OLK3)

Nuclear power may or may not be an unfortunate necessity. But a look at Finland should temper any optimism about construction costs.

The government’s decision in early January 2007 to support (or, more precisely, not oppose) the construction of nuclear power plants in the UK prompted strongly felt responses from all sides. To the electricity generating industry, nuclear power represents an attractive way of reducing emissions. To most – but by no means all – environmentalists, the push for more nuclear power is both a mistake and a missed opportunity: a mistake because no country has yet shown that nuclear waste can be stored effectively, and a missed opportunity because nuclear baseload generation reduces the incentive to develop wind and tidal power.

This article looks at what we can learn from the building of the nuclear power station at Olkiluoto (OLK3) on the western coast of Finland. The ground works started here in early 2004 and the plant is now due to open in 2011. Does this project give us confidence that nuclear power stations can be constructed at a reasonable cost and to a reliable timescale?

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