New nuclear farce

The Westminster government’s decision to back new nuclear power stations in England and Wales is absurd.

Government talks of building a “new generation” of nuclear fission plants by 2020, but the sums simply don’t add up. That may be par for the course with Gordon Brown, but with the latest move the prime minister is taking financial and scientific illiteracy to a new level.

I am not anti-nuclear on environmental grounds, but nothing has managed to convince me that fission power is either economically viable, or will deal in time with the problem of carbon emissions. Doubling our current nuclear capacity would only result in an 8% reduction in carbon emissions.

The nuclear industry relies on huge public subsidies. Despite recent protestations that new nuclear plant will not require government money, details have not been forthcoming, and many who are generally supportive of nuclear power remain unconvinced. Even if direct public subsidy is not involved in the new programme, my fear is that government will come up with something similar to PFI, so that the figures do not appear in the public borrowing accounts.

Talk of a “new generation” of reactors being built “well before 2020” is just silly. Going by current timescales, Generation IV reactors are not due to come on-stream until around 2030. One new design – the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP) – may be ready by 2021, but that is the most optimistic forecast. And even that’s too late considering our carbon emissions targets.

Can we accelerate the development of new nuclear reactors? By a few years, possibly, but then we would have to give central government carte blanche to override the planning process (“streamline”, according to the government), and bypass local communities when it comes to the siting of new power plants. Safety testing would also be severely compromised by such rapid development.

As for the renewables sector, it has every reason to be suspicious of the latest announcement. The government says that it is committed to significantly increasing the proportion of electricity generated through renewable sources, but such commitments will no doubt be cast aside once new money starts flowing into the coffers of EDF and other companies heavily promoting nuclear power.

To invest now in new fission reactors would be an act of political cowardice, and an abdication of responsibility.