7 October 2012
While reading the local paper last night, I came across a small article nestling close to the fold of a page. The headline read: A Warning Over Energy Shortfall. The article went on to say that Britain is facing the rising risk of an energy shortfall within three years. The energy regulator, Ofgem, said that energy supplies were being hit by the closure of ageing coal, oil-fired and nuclear power stations and being hit at the same time by tough European Union environmental laws.
The report predicted that the amount of spare capacity in the UK could plunge from the current 14% to just 4% in 2015, leaving the UK at risk of significant shortfalls. This is sobering stuff and brings the crisis home to people in their own living rooms – or wherever they like to read their newspaper. How can the situation have become so desperate? Well, first of all it stems from the government’s wilfully blind obsession with nuclear power and its failure to engage with renewable energy in a purposeful way. Secondly, having put most of its eggs in a nuclear basket, it now has to watch as one by one members of the consortia who were to build Britain’s new nuclear power stations are pulling out due to ever rising costs. The government has bent over backwards to accommodate the nuclear industry. At present it is trying to concoct an energy bill that will give aspiring nuclear plant builders big enough returns to overcome their fears. However, it has promised that this should not involve any public subsidy at all and will be held to this by both the political opposition and the public. Yet no nuclear power station has ever been built without public subsidy – and everyone knows this, so we’re all in ‘never never’ land, but dare not admit it.
And it is not just the cost of the new nuclear power stations. On 4th October, the European Commission published the results of its “stress tests” on all nuclear reactors following the Fukushima disaster, revealing hundreds of defects. Practically all of the 134 nuclear reactors in the European Union – including Sizewell B in Suffolk - need safety improvements at a cost of up to £20 billion, a bill that is likely to be passed on to the consumer in higher electricity prices. Whoever said that nuclear electricity would be “too cheap to meter”?
Where will all this money go? I would like to quote a paragraph from “This is Money” on 7th October 2012, which answers that question : “A set of negotiations that have the ability to swipe tens of billions out of the public purse and into private coffers. Chinese investors may be about to pick up part of the tab for building some of our new nuclear power stations, but this is not out of the goodness of their hearts. French energy group, EdF, in partnership with British Gas owner Centrica, has been embroiled in long negotiations with the Government over what will effectively be a subsidy to help them cover the huge building costs of these new generators. The Government is worried that unless we get these plants built – and quickly – there is a real chance that the lights will go out. But some of the numbers now being talked about in terms of price guarantees for the energy giants are astronomical. The highly regarded Supporters of Nuclear Energy group has calculated that, after building costs have been paid, the firms will coin a cool £4 billion a year in profits. And these power stations are expected to run for 50 years or so. That is an awful lot of our money likely to find its way into the pockets of EdF and Centrica. Certainly the Government’s negotiating position is not strong. Despite a belief that, should push come to shove, we could throw up a load of gas-fired power stations to cover any gap, there is still a conviction in Whitehall that we will be in severe trouble unless these nuclear plants are built.”
To go back to the little notice in our local paper – everyone seems to have forgotten that when Tony Blair suddenly changed his mind in 2005 and said we must have more nuclear power, the reason he gave was that unless we did, we could face exactly the shortage that our local paper has suddenly discovered for us – the retirement of ageing coal and nuclear power plants and personnel. Perhaps the paper has also forgotten that at the time many people with foresight were saying: “Yes – you’d better get on and encourage benign renewables too, because unless you do there will be nothing except carbon profligate gas to replace those ageing stations.”
On the subject of ageing reactors and personnel, a specialist engineer who worked at Hinkley Point nuclear power station for almost thirty years recently slammed the nuclear industry’s approach to safety and predicted that a Fukushima-type disaster in the UK was “almost inevitable”. Speaking at a rally organised to oppose the construction of a new mega-reactor at the Somerset power station, Peter Smith said “Over the years, I became more and more aware of the dangers and the dark side of nuclear power”. Smith, who was head of the electrical and instrumentation section at Hinkley before he retired, said he had seen corner-cutting from the design stage onwards. At Hinkley, major safety systems were omitted and others only implemented after accidents. He concluded that human error makes it impossible for nuclear power to be 100% safe.
Commenting on EdF Energy’s bid to build a new EPR reactor at Hinkley, Smith added: “The nuclear industry suffers from the delusion that nuclear power is safe.” And he raised the issue of the lack of nuclear engineering expertise in the nuclear industry: “The reason there was never a major incident at Hinkley was because there were experts like me who knew the systems inside out. These experts are now retiring or moving to other sectors. If you combine this brain drain with increasing commercial pressures and old reactors being pushed to perform beyond their intended lifespan, you’re creating a recipe for disaster.”
Neither Blair nor Cameron have done anything but try to fiddle a political way around the crisis – and it is left to the local Eastern Daily Press to play the role of Macbeth’s witches and warn us all of doom.
But there is something the government could do – and should have done by now. They could invoke the “war time spirit” and engage people with a vision of helping get Britain through this energy crisis. The government could promote and lead a wholehearted change of attitude towards selfishness and greed – including an end to the squandering of electricity as happens everywhere at present. This would be a more honest way of going on – instead of acting like Tony Blair and refusing to even consider telling people to do anything that might affect their life-styles (his reported response to a suggestion to ask people to switch to low energy light bulbs!)