‘Britain is sleep-walking into new energy crisis,” screamed the Daily Telegraph newspaper last week. The article was sparked by the crisis at the Grangemouth oil refinery in Scotland. But this kind of panic over the future of Britain’s energy isn’t unusual.
We are regularly told that if we don’t build new nuclear power plants the lights will go out. It isn’t true. The Energy Fair group has carried out research into nuclear power. Dr Gerry Wolff, coordinator of the group, told Socialist Worker that the idea of an energy crisis was “scaremongering”. “There’s a manufactured panic about energy,” he said.
Gerry said the panic is fake because if politicians really thought the energy supply was drying up they could build gas-fired power stations. That wouldn’t be ideal in terms of carbon emissions. But as Gerry put it, “If there was a real urgency, they would say never mind the emissions, we’ll throw up some gas-fired power stations.
“They’re very simple things. They’re quick to build and the gas is available. And it’s much cheaper than a nuclear power station. Talk of an energy gap is highly misleading because you’ve got these options.”
In any case, nuclear power is no answer to an energy crisis. “You would not choose nuclear power to fill an energy gap,” said Gerry. “It’s extremely slow to build new nuclear power stations.”
Areva is a major nuclear firm in France. The average time from start of construction to full grid connectivity for their last four nuclear reactors was 17 and a half years. “Many nuclear plants go way over their time and cost budgets,” said Gerry. “You wouldn’t get a nuclear plant built in less than 10 years.”
The great myth is that nuclear power is clean and cheap. In reality it is expensive, dirty and dangerous. But Gerry said the full cost of nuclear is often unclear because of various hidden costs. “The costs that are quoted about nuclear, which get into official publications, are basically wrong,” he said.
“People choose to try and pretend certain costs aren’t there. One of the biggest hidden costs is that the industry doesn’t have to insure properly against disasters such as Fukushima.
“Most people understand that, if they’re going to take a car on the road, they have to be properly insured. By contrast you’ve got these nuclear plants all around the world and you can run them without hardly any insurance at all.
“It’s absurd. That’s clearly a subsidy. You’re letting someone off the cost that they should properly pay.”
Energy Fair has researched how much nuclear energy would cost if hidden costs such as this were actually taken into account. The cost of nuclear came to £200 per megawatt hour. This compares to a widely accepted figure for the cost of offshore wind energy of £140 per megawatt hour.
Gerry said, “The government is willing to pay EDF a figure that is twice the going rate for electricity for 35 years. At long last it’s come into public view that nuclear is very expensive.” But this isn’t the only problem with nuclear.
As the Fukushima disaster in Japan showed in 2011, nuclear power opens up the possibility of lethal accidents and meltdowns. “There’s no question that it’s dangerous,” said Gerry.
“The nuclear industry originally said you might get a nuclear disaster in something like once every 10,000 years. In fact that actual figures from the last 20 or 30 years is a nuclear disaster somewhere in the world once every 11 years. And there have been several very near misses that haven’t been reported.”
For some, however, the idea that nuclear is a low emission energy source means we have to embrace it to save the planet. Gerry said, “The claims made about nuclear power cutting emissions are highly misleading. People say it’s zero emissions—it isn’t.
“There’s a lot of research, in peer-reviewed scientific journals, saying the emissions across the entire nuclear cycle including mining are between nine and 25 times the emissions from wind power.”
Why is the government driving ahead with a new nuclear power plant?
Gerry said, “I think lobbyists have a big influence. There are employees of EDF embedded in Whitehall. It is worrying to have people from a commercial company—lobbyists, working inside Whitehall.”
Nuclear power is widely discredited. So energy firms and their politician friends reach for their last desperate rationale for building more deadly plants. They say it’s the only way to guarantee energy security. Again, the evidence shows the opposite.
“People think that a nuclear power station is working away 24/7,” said Gerry. “That’s wrong. Any kind of equipment breaks down. The point about nuclear is that, when it breaks down, you lose a large amount of electricity very quickly.
“With the national grid, people try to keep supply and demand in balance all the time. If you suddenly lose a large amount without much warning, it makes it very hard. People say wind power is variable—but you typically get several hours warning. And the variation is gradual. People making the adjustments can make them in time.”
In contrast to the commonsense view of renewables, Gerry said they can provide secure, safe, green energy. “The potential energy from renewables is very large and many studies show that.” One example is a study from the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
It found that, ‘A network of land-based 2.5-megawatt turbines restricted to nonforested, ice-free, nonurban areas operating at as little as 20 percent of their rated capacity could supply more than 40 times current worldwide consumption of electricity and more than five times total global use of energy in all forms.
“There is additional potential in offshore wind farms.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that a whopping 80 percent of the world’s energy could be supplied by renewables by 2050.
And Gerry pointed out that renewables can generate energy quickly using existing technologies—unlike nuclear. “In 2010 Germany installed 8.8 gigawatts of solar energy in one year,” he said.
“That’s roughly the equivalent of one nuclear power station, even on conservative assumptions, in one year. The old energy industries are rather keen to give the impression that renewables are not up to the job.“That’s completely wrong.”
Nuclear plants—not about energy
Nuclear power is expensive, dirty and dangerous. So why don’t rulers across the world abandon it? Nuclear power is inextricably linked to nuclear weapons. Nuclear power plants turn uranium into plutonium—used to manufacture bombs.
The mining of uranium, allegedly for nuclear power, encourages trade in the ingredients of deadly weapons. And serious security breaches at nuclear power plants across Britain have been covered up.
In the early 1950s US rulers saw that their weapons programme would need more plutonium than it could get from the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Monsanto boss Charles Thomas suggested a plutonium reactor that would produce plutonium for weapons and electricity.
The AEC studied the feasibility of commercial nuclear reactors in 1951. It decided that they would only be economically feasible if they produced plutonium that could be sold as well as electricity.
A 1952 annual report for Commonwealth Edison reached the same view. It found that dual purpose plants “would be justified from an economic standpoint only if a substantial value were assigned to the plutonium produced”.
This is why energy firms got interested in nuclear.
In 1954 the US government amended the Atomic Energy Act. Firms who operated commercial nuclear reactors were then given uranium fuel from the government in return for plutonium— used to make triggers for nuclear weapons.
Today any country with nuclear power has the ability to develop nuclear weapons. But countries that have nuclear power and are not allied to the US—such as Iran are sanctioned for it.
Nuclear weapons production was never intended to be separate from nuclear power. Britain’s government backs new nuclear power plants because of the military advantage it sees in them—just as it wants to replace Trident weapons.
Nuclear Power is not the Answer by Helen Caldicott
Climate Change: Why nuclear power is not the answer by Martin Empson
Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk