Premier Radio Interview : Nuclear Power

I have just been interviewed by Marcus Jones of Premier Radio, the Christian broadcaster, for their news programme.

I don’t really know how well I performed, but these are the notes I prepared beforehand.

[ Introduced as Jo Abbess of Green Christian magazine. ]

IMPORTANT : The Hinkley Point C reactor, if the subsidy framework gets permission from the European Commission, would only provide around 2% of the UK’s total energy needs.

We think there are a number of practical and economic problems with building a new fleet of nuclear power reactors in the UK.

Following on from our “Faith in Power” briefing of 2006, we feel that none of these have been answered.

1.     The residual cost

Roughly half the Government’s energy budget each year is used for nuclear waste disposal and plant decommissioning.

–>     This means that we are still paying for the last 60 years of the nuclear power programme through our taxes.

–>     This Hinkley announcement means that not only will we carry on paying to clean up the waste from the last 6 decades; on top of that we will also be paying for the new nuclear power, at double the cost of current electricity prices through our bills.

2.     Nuclear waste

The proposed projects will increase the total volume of radioactive waste that we need to dispose of by roughly 10%, but the waste from the new reactors will be higher in strength, so the total radioactivity burden will go up three times.

–>     In addition, the Government still haven’t found a secure nuclear waste repository.

3.     Little, late and inflexible

It will be at least 10 years before new nuclear power will come onto the grid, and this project will only provide a few percent of our total energy needs.

–>     But we need to increase our low carbon energy right now as we are facing an energy gap in the next few years.

–>     Flexible systems that can be turned on and off again easily are best to work alongside true renewables. They are much better than nuclear power, which needs to stay on all the time.

–>     Using low carbon gas fuels in power plants can provide this flexibility, and save us from having to burn coal.

4.     Novel reactor designs

The reactor designs proposed for Hinkley are untested.

–>     Plus they will be largely foreign-owned and -controlled technology.

Please note : if you need the references for any or all of the points above, please call me on 0845 45 98 460 or email : info @ greenchristian . org . uk or info @ christian-ecology . org . uk



Author: | Date: 21 October, 2013 | Category: Energy News | Comments: 7

Comments on "Premier Radio Interview : Nuclear Power"


October 29, 2013

Jo, Thanks for posting the links to the documents I mentioned. It would have been a bit presumptuous for me to post them on your website. I think we will have to accept for now that we disagree on the future role of nuclear power. I don't want to monopolise the discussion so I will leave it there. You are doing a great job in providing a place in cyberspace where christians can discuss these issues. From talking to people at conferences I know that a lot of environmentally aware christians feel very isolated. There are a lot of churches up and down the country where you could not get enough people together to have a face to face discussion like this.


October 28, 2013

Peter,Thank you for your continuing attention to these issues.The link for the CAT ZCB article you mention is :- the paper to download is :- 1 shows a cost-per-person comparison of an approximation to the ZCB strategy and other pathways.The Friends of the Earth document you reference is downloadable here :- Global Commons Institute has also published on the numbers in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report Working Group 1 Summary for Policymakers, including this :- you point out, the UNFCCC meeting later this year will be facing a tough time communicating the fact that the global "safe" carbon budget hasn't slackened since 2007 with the evidence from more recent science - if anything, it's got tighter.The urgency for carbon emissions control means that adopting any strategy with a time-to-completion of more than five years runs the risk of overshooting our carbon budgets. This means that the ambitions for a nuclear power renaissance should not be pursued. We need guaranteed carbon control in a much shorter timeframe than the project lifetime of Hinkley Point C.


October 28, 2013

Jo, Thanks again for the response. In the interim before your reply I have been doing a bit more research. Found a couple of relevant documents: 1) On the CAT ZCB site they now have a blog post by Philip James "Zero Carbon Britain and an adequate economics" which although it does not cost the ZCB strategy gives an approximation using the DECC 2050 Pathways tool. 2) Friends of the Earth now have an article "The UK,shale gas and unburnable carbon: Questions for the UK government" which gives their view of the implications of a cumulative carbon budget, pointing out that the numbers that have been around for some time are very similar to those in the IPCC AR5. It is becoming clear that a cumulative lmit consistent with a 2 deg C increase is going to be highly contentious in the UNFCC talks.The problem we face is that we are currently not securing the level of public support needed to get the necessary action at government level. We need to become much better at communicating what the science really implies.


October 27, 2013

Peter,Yes - the round trip of energy conversion losses { water --> hydrogen --> methane --> power } is around about 60% - so to electrolyse water for hydrogen, then recycle carbon dioxide by the chemical addition of hydrogen in the Sabatier process, then storing the the methane, then using the methane to combust in the power plant loses about two thirds of the energy input. If it is so lossy, why would we do it ?The answer lies in considering the mis-match between renewable electricity supply and electricity demand. As there are increasing amounts of renewable electricity capacity on the grid - such as wind power and solar power - there will be more and more hours when this output is not needed to supply normal power demand levels. At present, this excess is "dumped", but "constrained" wind and lost solar amps would be very useful to help store energy to use when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing. Renewable electricity is by its nature variable, and so all the major grid networks are looking at ways to "fill in the gaps" - and utilising short-term excess power to make gas for later use makes a lot of sense.Natural Gas is mostly methane, and so the producers of Renewable Methane from this "Power to Gas" process anticipate few regulatory limitations to adding as much as they can make to the gas grids - as long as they make sure that the final gas continues to be of the agreed pipeline quality standards. Renewable Gas can therefore be a highly acceptable and virtually free of charge substitute for Natural Gas.Measures are being put in place to curtail the amount of coal we use to generate power - the European Union Large Combustion Plant Directive, and its replacement, the Industrial Emissions Directive mean a lot for both air quality and climate change targets, and will protect communities where coal is currently over-mined.I agree with you that the Carbon Floor Price and the EU Emissions Trading Scheme are unlikely to be able to assert a relatively high negative value on carbon dioxide emissions - there are too many forces at work that will make carbon pricing ineffective in changing the resources used for energy generation; and carbon pricing is likely to lead to inflation in the whole economy, not just in energy consumer bills.I don't think the UNFCCC Adaptation Fund will grow very much, as countries are likely to find excuses to renege on their pledges, given the poor economic climate.To change our energy economy to act more justly as regards climate change, we have to take a gradual approach in making changes, I believe. It is not possible to jump immediately to a position where electricity is fully decarbonised; where transport runs on a mix of hydrogen fuel cells, electric battery, Renewable Gas; where heating needs are provided for by a power grid with high levels of Renewable Electricity fed in and gas grid with significant levels of Renewable Gas injected. Currently, the UK Treasury raises significant revenue for "green" purposes - but very little of that is used to support or promote "green" economic activity. It would be more effective as regards the development of green energy, for people to have the option to forgo income to direct that capital towards green energy. It is normal for employees to have certain deductions made through their payroll system - I think there should be tax breaks for people wanting to push a small percentage of their wages to green energy. I think there should also be more "green energy" funds. Good Energy have recently raised £15 million for renewables through offering Energy Bonds, and I know others are at work on similar concepts - for example. Trillion Fund, Triodos and others are directly pushing money towards green energy and cleantech. I know this is fine for people with excess money, but what about ordinary families with stretched budgets ? How can they contribute towards the development of green energy ? The ultimate green energy is negawatts - not using energy in the first place. Fuel Poverty can be partly answered by using very small amounts of national tax revenue for mass insulation programmes - something the Coalition Government cut - putting the failed Green Deal in place.


October 25, 2013

Jo, Thanks for the quick response. So far as renewable gas is concerned CAT suggest gas produced by the Sabatier Process. This involves production of methane by catalytic combination of carbon dioxide with hydrogen at high temperature. (The hydrogen comes from electrolysis of water. If you add the equations up it is effectively the reverse of combustion. Thermodynamics means that the energy input will need to be at least equal to the energy released in combustion of the methane (given the inefficiencies of the processes possibly quite a bit more). This is OK as a backup - surplus electricity when the wind is strong can be used to produce methane for combustion when there is not enough wind but it will not work as a substitute for fossil natural gas.Energy prices are certainly currently a hot topic but that does not change the fact that they are distorted by cheap coal. Combustion of fossil fuels has consequences for people outside the UK. The EU Trading Scheme and the Carbon Floor price do not really adequately address these (and I don't think the money goes to pay for adaptation/compensation anyway). The Adaptation Fund under UNFCC is currently lamentably underfunded. If we were acting justly, fossil fuel generation would include a levy to go into a pot to fund the externalities and we would be paying more for electricity. Also some department in government would have a budget to fund the UK share of the adaptation costs arising from our historic emissions. I would agree with you that both of those are currently politically unacceptable but our prophetic role as christians is to call for what is just rather than what is politically acceptable. Fuel Poverty is a big issue - but is the solution to fuel poverty for those on low incomes to have cheap energy for everyone? Would it not be better to have a low priced basic allowance per household with an increased price for units used above the basic allowance? Part of the problem here is increasing inequality - considering the median income of the UK we are still a prosperous nation in comparison to a lot of the world. We need to work on improving the situation of the lowest quartile. To get back to nuclear - the comparison that ought to be made is not between the current price and the "strike price", but between the "strike price" and a properly costed renewable scenario such as that suggested by CAT. (Note that CAT provide this as one option not necessarily the optimum option).


October 23, 2013

Peter,I think that the evidence that we have so far shows that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, to assert a price for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions to compensate for the "social cost of carbon". The Carbon Floor Price, a major plank of UK Government policy, is due to be stepped up progressively, but there are many forces against its efficacy, not least the fact that it will cause inflation, and dampen the impact of setting a price for carbon in the first place. Also, energy producers and suppliers are likely to resist the imposition of the Carbon Floor Price, so it is likely there will be political pressure that keeps it ineffective.Even if it were possible to set an appropriate price for carbon, it would only aggravate energy costs for end consumers, without creating proper incentives for energy producers and suppliers to change the resources they use to generate electricity (the mining of gas, oil and coal).UK taxpayers will continue to be forced to pay through our taxes for the last 60 years of the nuclear power programme. There is little that could be done to alleviate this burden, and since UK energy bill payers are also for the most part UK taxpayers, this is effectively an additional item on the bottom of their energy bills - invisible, but residual.The latest version of the Centre for Alternative Technology's Zero Carbon Britain report ( has modelled the components of an energy system that would be required to meet a non-nuclear, carbon-free energy future. Besides Renewable Electricity, they include a slice of what I call Renewable Gas in their modelling. I am studying the potential for this, to displace the use of fossil fuel Natural Gas in the UK. The ZCB does not model the full details of their envisaged new energy system, neither do they put figures on costs or the timeframe in which certain infrastructural and plant investments need to be made. However, continuing to invest in Natural Gas facilities in the UK is a low-regrets option, as it would set in place most of what is needed for Renewable Gas, giving it the potential to be low cost in deployment.When deciding to accept new nuclear power, it is important to remember that the cost of nuclear power is a continuing cost, including decommissioning and waste disposal, whereas the cost of true Renewable Electricity is mostly just an up-front cost, after which only Operations and Maintenance and Lifecycle Replacement or Repair costs are involved, as the wind and sunlight remain free of charge. With Renewable Gas, the new plant costs could be completely absorbed in the normal lifecycle costs of gas plant - as deployment would need to occur over a 20 year or so timeframe.As David MacKay is saying, to meet the short-term energy gap in the UK, we just need a few more gas-fired power plants. With the economy the way it is, we certainly don't need to embark on a costly new nuclear power programme.It is true that new gas power plants may face economic problems in operation as they will be used intermittently to backup Renewable Electricity which is being deployed in increasing amounts. There is a solution - the Capacity Mechanism - a subsidy to pay for gas backup when we need it. It has EU level policy backing - as they anticipated this very problem some time ago. However, the new nuclear power subsidies and the general new nuclear package, is likely to be challenged at EU level.


October 23, 2013

Jo, You are not comparing like with like here. The current electricity cost is artificially low due to the detrimental effect of the carbon dioxide emissions being externalised (ie falling on others than the bill payers). For a true comparison the marginal cost of addressing the consequences of each additional ton of carbon dioxide should be included in the price of fossil fuel electricity.In their latesreport on the "Zero Carbon Britain" project the Centre for Alternative Technology make a strong moral case that the UK should become carbon neutral by 2030. This is a much more challenging target than either the 80% reduction by 2050 currently in legislation or the target of decarbinsing electricity generation by 2030 which people recently sought unsuccessfully to have adopted. CAT do propose a generation mix that does not include nuclear but they do not give details of its costs or the probability of it's being achieved when all the deployment logistics and supply chain issues are taken into account. If you accept CAT's position, then fossil fuels need to be phased out rapidly. DECC give comparative figures for various forms of generation - When these are considered, nuclear does not look that expensive compared to the costs of other low carbon means of generation. Given the likely consequences of failing to meet a global cumulative carbon budget consistent with restricting the global temperature rise to no more than 2 dec C above preindustrial we need an energy strategy that has a high probability of succeeding. My own view is that such a strategy needs to include nuclear in the mix. To exclude nuclear would make it less likely that we will succeed. That does not mean that we should not press forward as rapidly as possible with the deployment of renewable generation. The more that can be deployed before Hinkley C comes on stream the more rapidly UK emissions will be reduced.

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