New Thinking Blog: British energy policy: descending to a combination of pork barrel politics and desperation?

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New Thinking Blog: British energy policy: descending to a combination of pork barrel politics and desperation?

CM cropped medBritish energy policy: descending to a combination of pork barrel politics and desperation?

Catherine Mitchell, IGov Team, 10th May, 2013

About Catherine:


Given that everyone – householders through to businesses – use energy, and that its use is a major cause of climate change, energy policy has significant implications for everyone in society. It can be a force for good – providing jobs; making lives more comfortable as houses become more energy efficient (warmer and free of draughts); be a stimulator of innovation, skills and new economic growth; and enabling those individuals and communities who / which wish take some control over their energy lives to do so. But it can also be depressingly unhelpful to society. An All-But-Business-as-Usual (ABBAU) energy policy is a malign force for any country. By enabling the conventional energy system characteristics to continue, an ABBAU is putting off the time for when changes will have to occur; making it more expensive for individuals and society at that point; as well as strangling the innovation and economic growth that comes from an energy policy in step with the socio-economic-technical and political momentum of global energy development.

However, the rapid technological changes which are occurring within the global energy system are becoming so great that the British Government insistence on being an ABBAU energy outlier is becoming increasingly difficult to explain away by any rationale, particularly economics. These rapid technological advances are related not just to integration of the energy system but also to integration of the energy, waste, water and food sectors. This is not exactly a decentralised system in that there are large waste or energy plants involved. But its essential characteristic is its resilience based on multiple, interconnected, flexible units and ‘smart’ communication technology, and much of that is decentralised. 

Britain’s civil and military adherence to nuclear power and weapons has tied us since the 1950’s to a type of energy policy where large, inflexible power plants are at the centre of our electricity system, and all other energy decisions revolve around them. This has not really mattered while alternative technological pathways to reduced carbon targets have not seemed to be that different in terms of total direct costs to society; ease or ability in getting there; or indirect benefits (such as economic growth, jobs and so on). Now that it has become clear that this is no longer the case; and ABBAU is the opposite of where global energy momentum is going, other more prosaic reasons are needed to explain our energy policy.

Plutonium Management, MOX2 plant or a new Fast Breeder Reactor

It appears Britain has now entered into Alice in Wonderland. Britain has been trying to develop a nuclear power programme. Until recently, it seemed as if the investors for that programme was limited to EDF, which was a problem to the Government given the high strike price and contract length that EDF wants for its contract.

However, two new options have been put forward which combine plutonium management, further support for the Sellafield complex, and new investors for nuclear power – all of which might sound good to certain parts of Government, the catch being the cost.

The first of these two options has come out of the Governments consultation on its plutonium management. Its preference is to have a new MOX plant (ie MOX2) – despite the last one closing in 2011 costing the UK tax payer £1.4bn (1). The pluses of this option is that some of the 120 tonnes of reprocessed plutonium knocking about in Britain could be mixed with uranium, thereby reducing some of our stockpile of plutonium, which is very expensive to manage. It would be even better if this MOX fuel could be used as fuel in the new nuclear power plants the Government is hoping to build. The major problem – as the recently closed MOX1 plant and plutonium swaps attests to – is that there is not a big market for MOX. Moreover, the Generic Design Assessments of new nuclear power plants (ie the EPRs) in the UK are for uranium fuel – not MOX and therefore permission would have to be sought. MOX fuel is also much more dangerous to deal with than uranium, because of the plutonium content. EDF has its own plutonium from the AGRs it owns, but why would it want to use MOX in the new EPR power plants which are not designed to use it?

It is therefore not clear what the Government expects to do with this MOX2 MOX? If the current new nuclear power programme fails, or is much smaller than the Government hopes for (as is expected), then not only would the Government have paid a huge amount for the nuclear plants but it is also paying a huge amount (estimated £6 billion) for a new MOX2 plant to essentially replace one which has just failed economically.

The second option alters the prospects for a new MOX2 plant. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s (NDA) has shown unexpected interest in an offer from GE Hitachi to install a fast-breeder reactor(s) at (they say) no public cost except for the use of the plutonium which would burn up the UK plutonium stockpile as fuel whilst producing electricity at the same time. This is despite the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) and Government having ruled out fast-breeders as being technically underdeveloped and too expensive, following prototype failures at Dounreay, as well as the evidence that those currently being built in America and France are hugely over time and budget.

The NDA is also looking at an offer by CANDU to build the Enhanced CANDU 6 reactor – which does not yet have GDA approval, and is therefore years away from the table.

Desperation + pork barrel politics

Depressing though it may be, if either a new MOX plant or a new FBR were to be supported (and the final decision is to be taken in 2015) it would be British pork barrel politics at its worst. It would represent a cynical combination of a desperate Government determined to show it can deliver a nuclear power plant, whatever the cost, with the opportunistic acceptance that confronting the complex, decades old problems buried in the Sellafield complex can be usefully put off once again for another decade or so by providing another injection of multiple billions for another project which will prove to be as economically burdomsome to society as the last several have been.

In the short term, forgetting the costs and the history, it would however raise the prospect of a new investor for nuclear power in Britain; white collar jobs at Sellafield; and the use for the plutonium mountain we have.

Neither of these options make technological and (probably don’t make) economic sense. The Government is potentially prepared to spend yet more billions on nuclear technologies with a terrible history to complement their equally dubious nuclear power programme, all the while ignoring the technological developments in the global energy system around the world.

Sellafield has some 11,000 people directly employed, plus spin-off work around the region. Sadly, over the years, West Cumbria has become dominated by, and wholly dependent on, the Sellafield complex. Despite the acceptance that the area badly needs to diversify its economic base away from all things nuclear, no diversification is likely to occur whilst the overall perception is that the nuclear industry is forging ahead with plans for new reactors at Sellafield, the possibility of a new MOX2 plant and/or Fast Breeder Reactor and the on-going and unresolved issue of an underground waste dump. The question is why, at a time when UK’s other mega industries have gone to the wall (coal, shipbuilding, steel etc), has the nuclear industry survived, especially as nuclear power in the UK has always required injections from Government and Sellafield has had an abysmal track record of accidents, leaks and failed technology.

The Military Civil Link

The International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) describes the reprocessed plutonium material as being weapons-useable – whether in its dioxide powder form (the Sellafield stockpile) or in the form of MOX fuel. Sellafield continues as the site of storage for British military plutonium. The wafer-thin line between military and commercial nuclear is quite rightly a major international concern, particularly for the non-nuclear weapon owning countries.

The Norwegian Government hosted a landmark conference in Oslo in March with 120 countries, the Red Cross and several UN agencies in attendance on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons. Of the nine nuclear weapon holding countries, only India and Pakistan attended. There will be a Review of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2015 and a Preparatory Committee has just finished meeting in Geneva. Given the current concerns of Iran and North Korea – quite apart from the usual issues of non-proliferation – this PrepComm was very important and opened up the question of the veracity or not of a nuclear deterrent. Is Britain, as a weapons owning country, less likely to be the focus of a nuclear attack? Or, since we never want to use one, is there any point in having nuclear weapons? The decision to upgrade Trident, our sea going nuclear deterrent, is part of this discussion.  

Military civil links has always been muted in the UK, with an absolute commitment on the part of the British Government to down play and separate the military aspects of civil nuclear power. However, a valid question is whether British energy policy is constrained or channelled by Britain being a nuclear weapons owning country?

Freeing up Britain to Innovate

Britain is gearing up to think about its plutonium management, just at a time when the Government’s faltering nuclear power programme could do with some more support. One option might be to inject further support into the Sellafield nuclear complex thereby potentially (although unlikely) helping to meet both objectives. However, this comes at a cost to society way beyond the short-term direct costs. The Government has got to realise that global energy systems and technologies are developing rapidly and their characteristics are about flexibility, the opposite of plutonium and uranium based technologies. The continued focus on nuclear power and its associated technologies increasingly appears anachronistic, particularly if that energy policy is muddled with powerful regional and defence policies and lobbies.

Note 1

NDA responses by email to Independent Newspaper (Steve Connor) 7th April 2011. Question 7.




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