Welcome to my Blog
I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.
Monday, 19 September 2016
Stop start for nuclear power
The energy story of the week is the decision to go ahead with the Hinkley nuclear power station. Theresa May's grand review of the project, turned out to be a case of the Grand old Duke of York, marching sceptics to the top of the hill, only to march them down again with the flimsiest of assurances.
George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian got it just about right. Nuclear power can make a useful contribution to a balanced energy policy, but Hinkley is an expensive white elephant. There are serious doubts over the design and the cost is prohibitive.
As Dave Vince of Ecotricity puts it; "it's just a bonkers thing to do really, particularly when we have so many clean alternatives which are cheaper, faster, cleaner in wind, solar, tidal, wave, and energy efficiency even.” He pointed to a study which suggested that £1 billion spent on energy efficiency could cut energy consumption in half. Meanwhile, £18 billion is likely to be spent on the construction of Hinkley.
However, nuclear power is a low-carbon energy source, roughly comparable to renewables in terms of total emissions. Replacing fossil fuels with renewables, on the timescale in which we need to act, is hard enough, without setting the additional, unnecessary challenge of also replacing nuclear power as some environmental groups advocate.
A more viable alternative might be small modular reactors (SMRs). It is argued that these offer a form of secure, low-carbon energy, the cost of which is comparable to, if not lower than, larger reactors. They also have smaller up-front costs, shorter build times and the option to gradually scale up capacity. However, they will have to overturn a key principle which has historically underpinned nuclear reactor design – economies of scale.
All of this is pretty academic in Scotland because no one is going to waste time and money battling against the Scottish Government's opposition to nuclear power. They can build in England and transmit the power to Scotland, when the wind isn't blowing. However, we should remember that existing nuclear power stations still power a third of electricity generation in Scotland.
The right-wing think tank, Reform Scotland, this week published a paper by Stuart Paton, 'Power of Scotland'. He argues that the proposed power stations at Hinkley Point and Sizewell in England would generate 6.4MW of power, equivalent to the entire capacity of all the current windfarms in Scotland, without the damaging environmental impact of wind farms. He also argues that the cost difference isn't valid because the agreed strike price at Hinkley Point of £92.50/MWhr compares favourably with £95/MWhr for onshore windfarms and £155/MWhr for offshore windfarms. However, this conveniently ignores the fact that renewable prices are falling. He does make the valid point that public opinion in Scotland isn't as anti-nuclear as we might think.
Sadly, an otherwise decent analysis of energy needs in Scotland is undermined by his advocacy of fracking. He fairly criticises the contradictions in the Scottish Government's policy of supporting oil and gas, but not fracking - but then makes similar contradictions by supporting carbon-free energy production and a dirty emission producing process like fracking. He is certainly right to criticise the UK government's decision to abandon CCS and to support a greater focus on energy efficiency.
He is right that Scotland has to develop its energy policy beyond a fixation on wind power and point scoring with Westminster. However, this package of contradictory polices isn't that alternative.