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Is there an energy crisis – and do we need nuclear power?

This article is over 9 years, 7 months old
As the Tories announce plans to subsidise the nuclear industry, Dave Sewell looks at the reality behind the arguments that nuclear power is necessary
Issue 2306

The nuclear industry is to be subsidised via our electricity bills, at an expense of up to £200 a year for the average household.

Nuclear power is phenomenally dangerous to humans and the environment. It is so expensive that it has never been possible to build a nuclear power station without the state footing the bill.

There has been furious lobbying to relaunch the nuclear industry, and start a new “dash for gas”, to get out of a supposed energy crisis.

Energy bills are already rising dramatically. They are projected to hit £1,500 a year for the average household in three years time.

We are told that changes in the energy market mean there is no alternative to these costs. In fact a large part of the increase is down to the energy companies’ profits.

One of the biggest, EDF, makes an average annual profit of £427 from every household it supplies.

But it’s true that Britain’s energy sector is at a crossroads.

Over the next ten years Britain’s capacity to generate electricity is set to reduce by a quarter.

Cold War-era nuclear plants are reaching the end of their lifetimes and coal-fired power stations will close as they can’t meet new clean air regulations.

Gas is the most important energy source in Britain. But some 40 percent of the gas consumed here is now imported. Yet extending gas drilling would waste an opportunity to replace Britain’s energy infrastructure with something genuinely sustainable.


The Department of Energy and Climate Change itself admits that Britain is “endowed with vast and varied renewable energy resources” including “the best wind, wave and tidal resources in Europe.”

In theory offshore wind power alone could meet Britain’s electricity demand three times over.

But the government seems determined to waste that potential.

It only gave up trying to slash subsidies to solar power by half after repeated defeats in court.

George Osborne now wants to cut the subisidies for wind power by a quarter.

And plans for new windfarms are frequently blocked.

A judge ruled last month that renewable energy targets did not outweigh the beauty of the countryside, blocking the building of four wind turbines near Great Yarmouth.

A similar backlash saw contractor RWE Npower cut by one third the size of its planned offshore wind farm, Atlantic Array, in the Bristol Channel.

This was despite a new poll showing 68 percent of people support new windfarms.

The Tories and their Lib Dem sidekick Ed Davey are ploughing their political energy into gas and nuclear.

If they focused instead on sustainable energy it could go a long way towards solving the energy crisis without destroying the environment.

The rest could come from reining in the wasteful chaos of the market, building public transport and decent homes for all.

But nuclear plants will at best generate decades of toxic waste and at worst blow us sky-high.

Privatisation wastes energy

Around 35 percent of the energy Britain uses goes on transport.

Privatisated public transport is less reliable and more expensive.

Heating accounts for 26 percent of all energy usage.

The endless rise in housing costs affects the amount of energy used on both transport and heating.

People are forced to live at ever greater distances from their place of work, so fuel is used in commuting.

And millions are forced to live in poorly insulated accommodation with little choice but to waste energy or freeze.

It’s businesses that waste the most energy.

Still the government is determined to free businesses from regulation in its ongoing “red tape challenge”—so they can carry on.

Nuclear is not clean or cheap

The government has capped the liability nuclear firms take on in case of disaster at £1 billion.

The actual costs would be much higher—the compensation owed for Japan’s Fukushima disaster is already around £70 billion, not counting long term effects.

So the cost of any disaster will be borne by the government.

This makes the cost of generating nuclear electricity appear less than half what it would be if risks were accurately taken into account.

The great scan of ‘clean gas’

The Tories are keen to emphasise how “clean” gas is compared to coal or oil. It’s not just in Britain—one EU research programme has officially lumped gas in with “low carbon” technologies.

But gas plants will be allowed to emit nine times more carbon dioxide than the target for low carbon electricity.

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