In the not so far-flung future, we face the prospect of a national power shortage. Global competition for fuel is increasing (look at the energy hunger in China alone) whilst at home our dwindling supplies of North Sea oil and gas mean that whereas a decade ago Britain was self sufficient, we now import 25% of our power needs. And the need is growing – pessimists predict we will import a daunting 75% of our energy by the 2020s.
At the same time, existing British power stations are being decommissioned whilst the power cables, pylons, pipes and sub-stations that make up our energy infrastructure are in urgent need of renewal to the tune of £200billion. And to complicate matters further, the source of much of the world’s energy is found under some of the world’s most unstable regions.
This cocktail of increased competition for a finite resource, supplied from insecure states and piped through an ageing infrastructure threatens to leave us with one almighty headache.
And there is no cheap or fast-acting aspirin:
- Wind energy is clean and it certainly is not foreign owned, but it is intermittent. We cannot rely on it to form part of our permanently available “baseload” power supply. Offshore wind is more predictable but also very expensive and still not up to “baseload” requirements.
- Tidal energy is underdeveloped and, it is argued, does not correspond with our peak time energy demand. Photovoltaic panels, though attractive, are micro, not macro, generators.
- Carbon Capture and Storage might make coal much more environmentally viable, but there is no guarantee that it will do so technically or economically in the medium term. Nor currently is there any obvious investment appetite for it, as demonstrated by the failure of the Longannet project. So the coal = carbon conundrum remains unresolved.
So what are we left with as a major source of energy that is consistent, clean and secure? The answer is nuclear.
Nuclear energy delivers constant, predictable and high-volume power, qualifying it as a major baseload provider. Unlike coal, oil and gas, nuclear leaves a smaller dirty footprint – it even beats wind energy, given a nuclear power station generates 1000 Watts of power per square metre compared with just 2 Watts per square metre from sail turbines. And nuclear helps insulate us from those petro-powers that may use their oil and gas reserves as the provisional wing of their diplomacy.
Thus nuclear power is integral to our strategy if we are to reconcile the competing demands of securing reliable sources of power with our commitment to cutting our carbon footprint. But it is not without its challenges, not least the cost of building a new generation of nuclear power stations fast enough to fill our emerging energy gap. Nor is it the only solution. We must still pursue the clean coal opportunities offered by CCS as well as wind power where appropriate. And we must diversify our supply of oil and gas looking particularly at shale and those emerging South Caucasus energy providers. Moreover we must encourage our European trading partners to diversify. Their over-reliance on gas supplies from Eastern Europe risks their energy security and, by extension, our trading security.
But what lessons on the risks of nuclear power in Britain should we draw from the terrible disaster in Japan? Professor Mike Weightman, Chief Inspector of Nuclear Installations who led the IAEA’s fact-finding mission to Fukushima and subsequently the author of the British report on the disaster, is clear. Over 315 pages and 38 recommendations, he concludes that there is “no fundamental weakness” in our nuclear licensing programme. He highlights the importance of probabilistic safety analyses as well as layout planning to mitigate flooding risk, but his report says there is no material risk or major re-investment required.
Fundamentally we should remember three things: We do not live on top of a seismic fault. We do not line up five reactors in a row. And we operate different cooling procedures. If an earthquake measuring 8.9 on the Richter scale, unleashing an 80 foot high tsunami is not capable of delivering a full-blown Japanese nuclear meltdown, the risk to the British nuclear programme is minimal. That is not to say we should be complacent. As the Weightman Report advises, “No matter how high our standards, the quest for improvement must never stop.” But with the right precautions and checks, we can be very confident. Our regulation already produces some of the best industry experts and the safest nuclear power stations in the world.
If we want cheap, clean energy from a secure source, we must buy into a new generation of nuclear power stations. And we must provide investors with this clear and consistent signal: build them.