The Department of Energy and Climate Change’s own climate change calculator shows that the only energy plan which can both reduce carbon emissions and guarantee steady supply is a major expansion of nuclear power (and even then there is an alarming dip in supply during the 2020s, because of the failure of successive Governments to make the necessary decisions).
This is the context in which to see today’s announcement of the signing-off of the deal with EDF, under which two water reactors will be built at Hinkley Point. However, nuclear doesn’t come problem-free. First, it demands subsidies – and at a time when public and political sensitivity to energy bill rises could scarcely be greater. Second, it gives foreign governments and firms a say in a matter as vital to national security as energy supply. And, third, there are the familiar arguments about safety, with a glance back to Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima Daiichi, not to mention nuclear waste.
The problem for any government is that, when it comes to energy policy, it must try to keep at least three balls in the air at the time – national security, keeping the lights on and keeping costs for consumers down. Shale will help meet these objectives, but it is not a cure-all. And while nuclear will help meet the second, there are problems with the first and third.
“When the Chinese build nuclear stations in the future, can we be certain that if, say, the Dalai Lama called on the Queen for tea, the projects would not suffer from unexpected delays?” Matt Ridley asks in today’s Times (£). Even if concerns of this kind are to be dismissed, there are others. In yesterday’s Sunday Times (£), Camilla Cavendish argued that Britain may end up giving expertise away to a country with no regard for property rights. In opposition, the Conservative position was that while Labour was pro-nuclear and the Liberal Democrats anti, a Tory Government would offer a “third way” in which nuclear would arrive without subsidy.
This simply isn’t going to happen (and never was). Very simply, if we want the supply that nuclear brings, consumers and taxpayers are, by some means or other, going to have to pay for it – and the EDF deal is a reminder that the number of potential suppliers is limited, which helps to explain George Osborne’s love-in with the Chinese Government. Unable to keep all those balls in the air at once, the Ministers are plumping for trying to keep the lights on.