Meeting our energy needs for the 21st Century
Roger Higman, Environmental Limits Co-ordinator, Friends of the Earth, argues that nuclear is not the answer.
The UK Government is committed to tackling climate challenge. Indeed, the Prime Minister Tony Blair has described it as one of the biggest threats facing the modern world. But, to face up to that threat, he must act to shift our energy supply from polluting forms of fossil fuel to greener and cleaner alternatives.
As things stand, energy use in the UK is dominated by oil, coal and gas, which, to differing degrees, produce carbon dioxide emissions, contributing to climate change.
Between a quarter and a third of these carbon dioxide emissions come from generating electricity.
Scientists have said that emissions must peak and then decline within the next 10-15 years if we are to avoid a temperature rise of more than two degrees Celsius. This is the point at which they think the world’s climate could become destabilised, resulting in dangerous climate change.
This huge challenge to modern society has been seized upon by those within the nuclear industry, and indeed by some within government, as an opportunity to resurrect the nuclear dinosaur. They claim that nuclear power is the clean emission-free fuel of the future, but such an argument ignores the risk of proliferation, the cost and the apparently unsolvable problem of what to do with nuclear waste.
What is more, nuclear technology is not carbon neutral, as it relies on the extraction and transportation of plutonium and uranium for reactor fuel. It may produce much less carbon dioxide than fossil fuels, but it produces more than wind power. It also raises the threat of nuclear proliferation.
For this so-called clean source of energy provides the technology for nuclear weapons. If the Government wants to show international leadership in tackling climate change, it must do so by investing in a technology that it is willing to share.
The UK Government does not need to rely on nuclear technology to meet future energy needs. The alternatives do exist. Renewable technologies such as wave, tidal, solar, wind, renewable heat, and micro-generation have the potential to provide the UK with much of its energy needs of the future. Future energy needs are unlikely to be met by just one source – but by a package of different sorts of generation. What is needed is solid support to bring these infant industries on stream.
The Government must radically increase its investment in, and support for, these technologies with economic and policy measures. One way in which it can do this, for example, is by ensuring that public buildings such as schools, hospitals and government offices are supplied by energy from these sources.
Part of the solution must also involve addressing our high energy demand. Thirty per cent of our energy use could be eliminated by cost effective energy saving measures alone. The Government can help transform the energy sector for example by introducing legislation to force current energy supply companies to reduce energy demand, changing them to energy savings companies. Companies would have to reduce demand year on year. A target of at least one per cent a year would comply with the EU Energy Services Directive.
Friends of the Earth believes there must be a commitment throughout Government to commit to carbon dioxide cuts – and that the more effective way of ensuring this is through a carbon budget for all departments. This would ensure monitoring and reporting of emissions across Government.
Energy efficiency measures are also critical across the broader economy and the Government can help with this by setting targets in consultation with industry. Economic measures can also reduce energy demand in the transport sector by providing incentives for travel by train, and reducing the incentive to travel by car. The heavy subsidies currently received by the aviation industry must also be addressed.
Of course there will be costs in developing a clean energy sector, but it is worth remembering that the British nuclear industry was built and run on state subsidies.
Last year UK taxpayers effectively provided a £4 billion bail out for British Energy and under arrangements which came into force in April this year, the entire liabilities of British Nuclear Fuels are borne by a government quango, the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency.
BNFL is effectively owned by the state and would have been bankrupt had it not had government support.
Figures from the Department of Trade and Industry suggest that despite the much vaunted promise that nuclear power would provide electricity that would be “too cheap to meter”, the costs per kilowatt of nuclear electricity by 2020 is likely to be on a par with coal and up to twice the cost of on-shore wind.
Nuclear power also presents a risk of almost unmanageable proportions. Twenty years on, the spectre of Chernobyl still looms over Europe, and while we might like to think that such a disaster could not happen here, the evidence would suggest otherwise.
Nuclear power currently provides almost one quarter of the UK’s electricity, with electricity generation accounting for just a quarter of Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Even if were we to double our nuclear capacity, we would only reduce the level of greenhouse gas emissions by eight per cent.
What is more, the time lag in building new nuclear power stations mean that those cuts would not come for another 10 – 15 years. This would be too late to save the climate.
Nuclear is clearly not the solution.
What we need is a comprehensive plan to tackle energy use – both in terms of reduction and generation. Friends of the Earth has calculated that the most effective way of doing this is a year-on-year reduction of around three per cent a year in carbon dioxide emissions (see thebigask.com).
This will allow us to develop new technologies and maintain a healthy economy, while also tackling the threat of climate change. Committing to new build nuclear does not do this – solid investment in renewable technology can.
Friends of the Earth