Nuclear Power – what was the question again?

So the first deal has now been done – the one that is set to provide a new nuclear power facility at Hinkley in Somerset. Whilst catching up with some of the news about this, I was trying to remind myself quite why nuclear power is the answer and precisely what the problem is that it is trying to solve.

As a non expert in this field, I merely pick up information from newspapers, radio and TV media which to my mind in the current debate have focused largely on the serious question of whether or not we will run out of energy and how we can secure an energy future for the UK. To that I would add three more issues that have arisen in previous debates:

  • the price of energy to the consumer
  • our ability as a country to reduce CO2 emissions from energy
  • our commitment to reducing energy consumption

So is nuclear the answer to all these issues/questions? Probably not, so why have we fixed on this expensive and controversial solution? Controversial, not just because of the opposition to nuclear power itself, but because of the price fixing requirement and the reality that this will be built and delivered through foreign investment, with UK Government subsidy!

Will the development of new nuclear power stations deliver a price reduction in the long run to consumers? An unanswerable question, we just don’t know. With the need to fix a future guaranteed price, at a significantly higher rate than current prices, do we have to hope that general energy prices are above this rate by the time these new facilities are built? That does seem slightly perverse – the only way this can work is if prices double over the next 15 years, then its a good deal! So this solution may not deliver lower, stable prices – isn’t that what businesses and all consumers want above all else?

Undoubtedly replacing coal fired power stations with nuclear power does reduce CO2 emissions, so does help to provide a solution to our need and desire to cut back on damaging emissions. As a solution, nuclear power also has the potential to make quite a big impact on energy supply. The new facility at Hinkley will I believe provide 7% of energy supply when it is up and running. So a few of these spread around the country could do quite a bit to reduce concerns over energy security – assuming you trust the fact that these big infrastructure projects will actually be delivered (without even thinking about on time and on budget).

The big question that I have is why we do not focus more on reducing energy consumption. The current government focus seems to be on catching up with demand and  ensuring we can meet future increasing demands, without much time or resource being spent on how we could do so much more to reduce our energy consumption as a nation. What difference would it make if we invested in energy saving measures in all homes and businesses, if we rethought our transport systems and working lives to reflect the real price of energy and treated it like the scarce resource it is?

I would love to see the UK government embrace renewables properly, providing a clear strategy and framework for delivery, as well as resources. I would like to see a much greater emphasis on demand management, providing businesses and individuals with energy efficiency support and advice that really makes a difference and becomes the norm rather than the exception. None of this is new, we have been talking about these things for decades and playing around the edges, but to make it work we seriously have to think so much bigger. Not just about big infrastructure projects that are inevitably attractive to politicians, but about smaller measures on a mass scale that could potentially have a bigger impact. Sadly these things take time and are harder to see, so what we end up with are big projects, which don’t always provide the solution to the problem we started with!

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