Opportunity cost

There is an opportunity cost in nuclear power: in terms of the fight against climate change, security of energy supplies and other considerations, nuclear power diverts attention, effort, and large amounts of money away from renewables and the conservation of energy, where those resources would be more effectively spent.

There is no valid justification for providing subsidies for nuclear power:

  • Nuclear power is a mature technology that should not require any subsidy. Subsidies are for newer technologies that are still finding their feet commercially.
  • The nuclear industry is already heavily subsidised (see Nuclear Subsidies, PDF).

There is abundant evidence from reputable sources that, in general, renewables, with conservation of energy:

  • Can provide greater security in energy supplies than nuclear power;
  • Are substantially more effective than nuclear power in cutting emissions of CO2;
  • Are cheaper than nuclear power, taking account of all subsidies;
  • Can be built much faster than nuclear power stations;
  • Can easily meet all our needs for energy, now and for the foreseeable future;
  • Provide more flexibility than nuclear power;
  • Provide diversity in energy supplies;
  • Are largely free of the several problems with nuclear power.

There is now a commercial race around the world to take advantage of the rapidly-growing market for renewable sources of power. We should be competing vigorously in that market, reaping the benefits in jobs and earnings. We should not be propping up a failed technology from the last century.

Here is relevant evidence:
  • Security of supplies:

    • Nuclear power is a hindrance, not a help, in ensuring security of energy supplies:
    • Like all kinds of equipment, nuclear power stations can and do fail. Failure of a nuclear power station is very disruptive on the grid because a relatively large amount of electricity is lost, often quite suddenly and with little warning.

      • By contrast, variations in the output of renewables are much easier to manage because they are gradual and predictable.
    • Nuclear power is not a home grown source of power in the UK. All uranium is imported.

  • Renewables are substantially more effective than nuclear power in cutting emissions. Peer-reviewed research shows that the nuclear cycle emits between 9 and 25 times more CO2 than wind power.
  • Nuclear power is one of the most expensive ways of generating electricity:

    • Jeff Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric—one of the world’s largest suppliers of atomic equipment—has said (in July 2012) that nuclear power is so expensive compared with other forms of energy that it has become “really hard” to justify (Financial Times, 2012-07-30). It is now well established that nuclear power is one of the most expensive ways of generating electricity.

    • More specifically, nuclear power is more expensive than offshore wind power:

      • Generation costs for offshore wind power are currently about £140/MWh (see Offshore wind power cost 'could fall one-third by 2020', The Guardian, 2012-06-13). 

      • News reports suggest that EDF will be unwilling to build a new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point in the UK unless it receives a guaranteed price that is close to £100/MWh for the electricity that is generated (see UK close to key deal on price of nuclear power, The Independent, 2012-10-29; and EDF demands subsidy guarantee to build new reactor, The Times, 2012-10-08). Let us assume that it is £90/MWh.

      • To obtain generation costs for nuclear power, we need to add on the current subsidies for nuclear power:

        • One of the largest of these is the cap on liabilities for nuclear disasters. Research by Versicherungsforen Leipzig GmbH, a company that specialises in actuarial calculations, shows that full insurance against nuclear disasters would increase the price of nuclear electricity by a range of values—€ 0.14 per kWh up to € 2.36 per kWh—depending on assumptions made (see Calculating a risk-appropriate insurance premium to cover third-party liability risks that result from operation of nuclear power plants (PDF). If we take the minimum value, this equates with €140/MWh or £112/MWh. 

        • In addition, 6 other subsidies have been identified in the report Nuclear Subsidies (PDF). Some of these, such as the cap on liabilities for the disposal of nuclear waste appear to be quite substantial.

        • If we ignore those other 6 subsidies, then, as a very conservative estimate, the generation cost for nuclear power is 90 + 112 = £202/MWh, considerably more than the £140/MWh generation cost for offshore wind power.

      • Further evidence that renewables are cheaper than nuclear power is in Cost of new nuclear and new renewables (Renewables International, 2013-10-22).

    • The cost of nuclear power has been on a rising trend for many years (see Section 4.2 in The financial risks of investing in new nuclear power plants (PDF)), while the cost of offshore wind power (and other renewables) is falling (see, for example, Offshore wind power cost 'could fall one-third by 2020', The Guardian, 2012-06-13).
  • In general, renewables can be built much faster than nuclear power stations. The average time from start of construction to full grid connectiviety for Areva’s last four reactors was 17.5 years.
  • Renewables can provide a diversity of sources of power, much greater than we have been relying on for most of the 20th century. In addition to two forms of solar power (concentrating solar power and photovoltaics), there is onshore and offshore wind power, hydro power, enhanced geothermal systems (EGS), biomass-fired generators, combined heat and power (CHP), wave power, and power from tidal streams, tidal lagoons and tidal barrages.
  • Nuclear power stations are notoriously inflexible and cannot easily be turned up or down to meet variations in demand. By contrast, renewables can provide a fully responsive, and reliable, source of power.
  • Renewables are largely free of the several problems with nuclear power, including the risk of nuclear disasters, the still-unsolved problem of what to do with nuclear waste that will be dangerous for thousands of years, and facilitating the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

In general, there are more than enough alternatives to nuclear power that can provide greater security, are cheaper, and quicker to build than nuclear power, they are substantially more effective in cutting emissions, they provide diversity in sources of power, and they have none of the many problems with nuclear power. We get bigger cuts in CO2 for a given amount of money, and we get them sooner, if we choose renewables with energy conservation -- and without using nuclear power. We certainly don't need both.

Renewables are driving with the brakes on

Renewables, with conservation of energy, can be expanded fast. But pro-nuclear policies and attitudes of the UK government and its advisors are slowing things up:

  • Government subsidy cut prompts solar outrage (The Independent, 2011-06-10). See also Solar power battle looms as Government slashes subsidies (The Telegraph, 2011-06-09); 'We believed we had a winner' - funding dries up for community renewables (The Guardian, 2011-06-09).

  • Big day for renewables (WWF, blog by Bronwen Smith Thomas, 2011-05-09). "Only with much clearer signals from the government on ambition for renewables will the clean tech industry be able to grow to its full potential, bringing massive benefits to the UK economy. ... we need strong commitment to renewable energy from the government in order to deliver the green economy. Nuclear power is an expensive and risky option that could crowd renewables out of the market."

  • In New Nuclear Power: Implications for a sustainable energy system Catherine Mitchell and Bridget Woodman warn that “new nuclear power will not contribute to the UK’s energy policy goals and, we believe, will actively limit the UK’s ability to meet its climate change targets”. This is because “the scale of the financial, political and institutional commitments required to build new nuclear power plants will undermine support for new technologies (such as renewable generation) and demand reduction measures”.

  • "Nuclear expansion ... can’t deliver on its claims: it would reduce and retard climate protection, because it saves between two and 20 times less carbon per dollar, 20 to 40 times slower, than investing in efficiency and micropower." Amory Lovins, writing in Grist, 2009-10-14.

  • Slash renewables target to protect nuclear, says EDF (ENDS Report Bulletin, 2009-03-12)

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