New Thinking Blog: Four Subjectivities of Nuclear Energy

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New Thinking Blog: Four Subjectivities of Nuclear Energy

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Four Subjectivities of Nuclear Energy

Caroline Kuzemko, IGov Team, February 11th 2013

For such an advanced technology decisions about whether to include nuclear power in the electricity generation mix are highly subjective, and subject to no small amount of flip-flopping.  Exploring and understanding what these subjectivities are, and how they relate to energy policy objectives, is vital if we are to get to the bottom of political decision making regarding nuclear power.

We might first explain these subjectivities with reference to the observation that aspects of nuclear power are difficult to quantify.  Historically nuclear power stations have leaked radioactive materials that have impacted upon workers, and in some instances wider populations, but these sorts of impacts have been hard to fully measure. Chernobyl and the more recent Fukushima disasters are used as significant examples of the dangers of nuclear power, but experts then comfort us that similar human errors and/or natural forces are not relevant to UK nuclear power.  However, a recent report in the Guardian, reminds us that leaks, albeit on a smaller scale, have occurred here, for example the 1,750 leaks reported from the Thorp reprocessing plant from 2002 to 2009.  It is difficult to quantify the impact of these kinds of mistakes but that does not negate real social and economic impact.  Given that being human is surely to err from time to time the likelihood of avoiding them over exceptionally long-term decommissioning periods appears highly unlikely.

The second subjectivity is related to the notion that nuclear power is domestic power – and shows how nuclear costs structures can one day be unacceptable and the next highly attractive. This level of political flip-flopping around nuclear power has been well documented.  In 1976 nuclear power, specifically the advanced gas cooled reactors, was labelled by the Central Electricity Generating Board as one of the major blunders of British industrial policy.  By 1979, however, Energy Minister David Howell was calling nuclear power the cheapest form of electricity generation known to man as part of a policy of supporting nuclear in the wake of the second oil crisis of 1978.  Likewise, in the 2003 White Paper nuclear was not supported given that “…its current economics make it an unattractive option for new, carbon-free generating capacity”.   The 2006 Energy Review, at the time of renewed geopolitical energy security fears, places nuclear back on the agenda given that it can “… yield economic benefits in times of carbon reduction and security of supply” issues.  Energy security concerns of a geopolitical nature had in each instance caused a refocus on UK domestic production capabilities.  The perceived ‘domestic’ nature of nuclear is a ‘trump card’ often deployed by nuclear lobbyists at times of supply concerns.

A third subjectivity concerns costs, something that ought surely to be a little more quantifiable.  I am not advocating that we should understand our shifting energy needs in terms just of costs – by no means – especially as it has been argued that singular emphases on keeping high nuclear costs down may well have led in the past to corner cutting and human error.  Even, however, an attempt to be more quantitative by looking at cost structures opens nuclear analysis up to further tensions, ironies and uncertainties.  This week’s publication by the Committee of Public Accounts on decommissioning waste now stored at Sellafield suggests that lifetime costs stand at £67.5 billion – much higher than earlier estimates.  The report also suggests that given the fact that deadlines have consistently not been met these costs could rise in future.  It also reminds us that, because of the cost reimbursement contract between Sellafield and the Authority, it is taxpayers that carry this burden.  There seems to be a good deal of irony involved in a government that highlights fiscal austerity, at a time of prolonged recession, and cost efficiencies as important whilst at the same time opting for perhaps the most expensive electricity option available if all building costs overruns and other lifelong costs and subsidies are added back in.

Further costing uncertainties are clear in that deals for future nuclear have not yet been done.  EDF clearly feels comfortable about using the threat of withdrawal to secure the best deal for EDF, and indirectly French taxpayers.  Henri Proglio, CEO, has warned that EDF will decide against pursuing new nuclear power projects in the UK unless the government ensures that they will be profitable.  These tactics reveal a recognition of the high scale of future nuclear costs but also a determination to pass as much of these on, reflecting current agreements, to the UK taxpayer.  One final aspect of costs, which emphasises uncertainty, is the question of finding a site for nuclear waste in the UK, with Cumbria having voted not to accept underground storage. Given that the councils involved were the only ones left in feasibility studies for the storage facility this implies a high degree of uncertainty for the Authority and for DECC when trying to quantify future costs.

The degree to which the UK government needs to cover nuclear decommissioning costs serves furthermore as a heavy distraction of funds away from developing and deploying other energy technologies. This is evident in the March 2012 Government briefing report, by Tom Burke, Tony Juniper, Jonathon Porrit and Charles Secrett, which informs us that 86% of DECC’s annual budget, or £6.93bn, is spent on managing nuclear waste and other liabilities.  This clearly leaves very little to spend elsewhere but at the same time DECC cannot argue that energy should not be subsidised given the very active and long track record of state nuclear support.  Given that the UK is bumping along the bottom of a long recession, not helped by austerity measures, energy poverty is also now a serious issue and it is easy to speculate what benefits money now allocated to decommissioning might be capable of bestowing elsewhere.

Clearly, decommissioning costs have to be properly covered however why commit the public purse to more of this inefficient distraction of funds in future?   The answers lie, I would argue, in these four important subjectivities.  As a recap, the first is that assessing the negative impacts of nuclear energy is problematic given the nature of some of those impacts, like medical and human costs as a result of leaks.  As a result these impacts are not quantified nor even well qualified.  The second is that nuclear power is understood as being capable of providing domestic electricity capacities, despite the need to import uranium, and this consideration becomes more important to political decision makers at times of geopolitical energy security concerns.  The third concerns its costs, the many uncertainties surrounding these and associated distractions from funding other important energy investments.  Finally, the fourth subjectivity relates to nuclear electricity’s low carbon credentials and this aspect is significant if, as in the UK now, carbon dioxide emission reduction is understood to be by far the most important environmental objective.  Articles in support of nuclear energy often site its low carbon qualities as making up for any other potential environmental and human impacts – which are, incidentally less quantifiable. Those that, like me, feel that the uncertainties around nuclear energy outweigh the benefits in the long run need to start directly and emphatically questioning these four important subjectivities.

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