New Nuclear?

Tony Blair with the Sellafield reprocessing plant in the background. Basically there has been no progress on the of re-building nuclear plants  since 2004.

Tony Blair (remember him?) with the Sellafield reprocessing plant in the background. Basically there has been no progress on the of building of new nuclear plants since 2004. (Image from The Guardian)

When I began Protons for Breakfast back in September 2004, one of the big questions we looked at was whether the UK would actually get around to commissioning new nuclear power stations. In that first presentation I quoted an article from the Daily Telegraph (11th July 2004)

“…even if the next administration decides in 2006 to build new nuclear stations, the planning and construction process means that new plants could not come on line until 2015 at the earliest.

I also quoted the then prime minister, Tony Blair.

“If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly…”*

As we end the 17th presentation of the course in April 2013, we are still asking exactly the same question. If we had made a decision back in 2006, then we would now be just a year or two away from switching on perhaps 3 GW low-carbon electricity generation.

Back then it seemed as though the British Government would make the choice. Now it seems the choice lies with a company (EDF) owned by the French government, who will assess our offer of subsidy to see if it suits them. However did we get here?

The reason has to do with the uniquely capital-intensive nature of nuclear power and the essentially uninsurable nature of its risks.

We can build up wind farms, one rotor at a time with each rotor costing only a few million. Private capital can do this. We can build up solar power in the same way.

Conventional coal and gas power plants costing on the order of 1 billion pounds and with a well-understood lifetime cost can just about be built by private capital.

But putting up on the order of 10 billion pounds for which there will be no return on investment for a clear decade at best, requires a rock solid guarantee of a return on investment which only governments can provide. At the moment it looks like the subsidy for the first station might guarantee a price as high as £0.10p per kWh for the next 20 or 30 years.

EDF are perfectly reasonable in asking for this subsidy. Our weak position as a country is because of decades of under investment in the massive costs of generating and distributing electricity. There is no reason to think that ‘market forces’ will drive the level of investment required – only governments can do this.

Now you may think that we shouldn’t build any new nuclear power stations. This is a fair point, and we could discuss it at leisure. However, it really does feel like a matter of national shame that we can’t even make up our minds one way or the other and just get on with it.

* 🙂 Actually Macbeth Act 1 Scene 7

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