National security is an all important issue, and the security of our energy supplies a vital part of this equation. Thus the Dave-baiters couldn’t believe their luck when the National and International Security Policy Group, chaired by Dame Pauline Neville-Jones – now a member of the Shadow Cabinet , appeared to contradict the Conservative leader on the subject of nuclear power.
According to the Financial Times: “A Conservative government should support new nuclear power stations to ensure security of supply, a Tory policy group said on Thursday, in seemingly direct contrast to David Cameron’s insistence that nuclear should be a “last resort”.”
But is this what the report actually said? Here’s the relevant quote:
“A full treatment of policy ensuring security of energy supply to British consumers requires nuclear energy and renewables to form part of the picture. This is beyond the remit of this Group which has focused on the implications of the UK’s increasing energy dependency.”
Note the phrase “a full treatment of policy,” i.e. a full policy analysis. Thus the report did not contradict David Cameron, because it doesn’t actually make any recommendations regarding civil nuclear power in the UK. That’s just as well, because the chapter on energy security mentions nuclear just twice, and then only in passing. What the report does do, in some detail, is to describe the far from secure supply of fossil fuels to Europe and the United Kingdom.
Of course, for many Conservative commentators, this is tantamount to saying we must go nuclear. But must we? In what way would going nuclear reduce our dependency on fossil fuels?
Let’s focus on oil and gas, where production, if not in outright decline, is increasingly concentrated in certain politically problematic parts of the world. In 2005, UK consumption of natural gas was 94.2 million tonnes of oil equivalent (mtoe). The corresponding figure for oil was 89.2 mtoe. Of the gas, 25.4 mtoe was used in power stations to produce electricity; and of the oil, less than 0.3 mtoe. Thus 86% of our oil and gas consumption is for purposes other than producing electricity.
Whatever the advantages of civil nuclear power, it is undeniably only good for one thing and that is producing electricity. Given that producing electricity accounts for just 14% of our oil and gas use, it follows that nuclear isn’t going to make us much less dependent than we already are.
But let’s think outside the box. Let’s imagine that we chuck out our gas boilers and cookers and replace them with electrical appliances. Ditto the internal combustion engine – scrapped in favour of battery or fuel-cell vehicles. In this brave new world, we could indeed switch over to nuclear in a big way and invite Mr Putin to pipe his gas to Murmansk (or anywhere else the sun don’t shine).
But hang about. What we’re talking about here is the termination of several industries and radical transformation of several more. Well, so be it. Dwindling supplies of oil and gas, combined with growing global demand, will make that necessary at some point anyway. However, before embarking upon such a programme we'd need to get a few things sorted first – like the development of a commercially viable range of electric cars, for instance. We’d also need to build in excess of one hundred nuclear power stations to supply what would be a hugely increased demand for electricity – as opposed to the ten or so replacements currently proposed for existing nuclear sites. No doubt, pro-nuclear MPs will be queuing up to volunteer their constituencies for the honour.
Now, there was something else I should have mentioned, oh yes, that’s it – we’d need an entirely new national grid! At the moment electricity accounts for 20% of energy end-use, the other 80% is mostly the oil and gas we put into our heating and transportation systems. So if electricity – nuclear-generated or otherwise – is to end our dependency on fossil fuels, then we’d need a grid-busting increase in power transmission and distribution capacity.
To be fair, most nuclear advocates aren’t proposing anything quite so ambitious. Policy prescriptions generally revolve around the replacement of Britain’s present nuclear generating capacity, with a few people wanting to replace some of our gas and coal-fired plant too. But if this really is the limit of their ambitions, then nuclear should not be presented as the solution to the challenge of energy security. For the reasons I’ve explained, nuclear, within our current energy paradigm, can only make us a bit less dependent on fossil fuel imports, which is like being a bit less pregnant. Nevertheless, in this debate, being pro-nuke is to wave a great clunking fist, a signal that, bunny-huggers-be-damned, one is ready to do whatever it takes.
The reality is that the nuclear option, if exercised at all, can only be a small part of whatever it takes. But such is nuclear’s totemic status, that it allows politicians to project the impression of bold decision-making. It is a throwback to the dinosaur days of the commanding heights, of industrial policies and central planning. No wonder Gordon Brown is such a fan.
Unlike the complex, messy, micro-economic business of energy efficiency and renewable power, nuclear is the perfect solution for those who like their politics simple. As such, it is a distraction from the hard thinking that needs to be done. In this respect, nuclear is just part of a wider and deeper misconception:
We talk about energy security as if the only problem was the supply side – i.e. the mix of energy sources used to fuel the demand side i.e. the infrastructure of energy-using systems that provide us with warmth, light, entertainment, mobility and all the other benefits of energy end-use. Thus the debate proceeds as if this end-use infrastructure were capable of working off any old mix of energy sources, leaving us free to select whatever combination best suits our desire for security, affordability and sustainability. What is forgotten is that our economic history is not one of adapting energy supplies to our end-use infrastructure, but of designing our end-use infrastructure around whichever energy supplies are available to us at the time. Thus if we are serious about reducing our dependency of fossil fuels, then it is here that the real thinking has to start.
This will come as a shock to our posturing politicians, but energy
security isn’t a James Bond world of pipelines and power stations, but
a mundane matter of kettles and car engines.
Related link: David Dundas makes the case for nuclear.