25 April 2009

No need for new nuclear power at Sizewell

By Liam Carroll

People will gather today at the site of the two Sizewell nuclear reactors on the Suffolk coast, to mark the tragic nuclear catastrophe of Chernobyl, and to demonstrate their opposition to the possibility of two further reactors being built.

Two themes will be taken up by the speakers; the risks of nuclear power on the one hand, and the benefits of an alternative energy grid, most frequently referred to as decentralised energy (DE), on the other.

While the health and safety risks of nuclear power are oft repeated, the less well known risks involve project failure and bankruptcy. It should be recalled that British Energy, the major nuclear plant operator in the UK had to be bailed out by the taxpayer in 2002 due to the simple fact that when electricity prices fall, nuclear power can't compete.

This could be equally said of decentralisation which will depend on expensive technologies like solar photo-voltaic (PV) panels and combined heat and power (CHP) units to create local electricity. The advantage that decentralisation has over nuclear is that you don't need a national transmission system, as represented by those unsightly pylons everywhere, to distribute the power; PV and CHP systems deliver electricity straight to the building where they are located, and any excess goes on to the local grid.

One of the barriers to decentralisation, or local generation, has been the notion that the only way to produce electricity is in large remote power stations. After Allan Jones, who got knighted for his efforts, proved that you could supply the 100,000 residents of the Borough of Woking with local generation, at a cheaper price and with a 77% reduction of CO2 emissions, the government had to sit up and take notice.

Unfortunately the regulatory arrangements around electricity markets make it nigh on impossible for the small local producer to get a fair price for any electricity they produce. This is a major disincentive for private and local producers to enter the market. Allan Jones was able to circumvent the arrangements through determination, expertise and by working on a sufficiently large scale.

Having incorporated Allan Jones into a government-industry working group however, Ofgem, the electricity regulator, has agreed that it needs to remove these barriers because they recognize that DE can "make an important contribution to reducing carbon emissions, increasing security of supply and alleviating fuel poverty."

The last Ofgem press release on the topic, from December 2008, says that they are "proposing radical reforms to the regulatory framework for Britain's electricity transmission network to speed up the connection of renewable and other low-carbon electricity generation." These proposals should start to make decentralisation a somewhat more widespread reality.

In the meantime Finland has been busy building the first new nuclear power station in Europe for over twenty years. It has not gone well. Currently the project is estimated to be running 1.5 billion Euros over budget and three years behind schedule, and the constructor and the buyer are now in court fighting over who compensates whom.

Steve Thomas, a nuclear economist has identified the problems as twofold; a major skills shortage in an industry that hasn't built a reactor for over twenty years, and a shortage of trained personnel amongst the inspectors who likewise suffer from a lack of experience. Both these problems will translate to this country where the Health and Safety Executive has long been flagging up its shortage of nuclear expertise to the government, and nuclear construction has been dormant for 23 years.

Nuclear power is an old model with which the problems are well known and many. Decentralisation is only just starting to take off as a new model of how to generate and distribute electricity and it offers much, but the promise will not be fulfilled without effort.

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