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China (and UK) head towards bad error on energy

The nuclear industry and its cheerleader DECC will be pleased at today’s announcement that China has re-started its nuclear programme after an 18 month hiatus following Fukushima. The Chinese government have made clear they remain very concerned about the safety issue, as well they should be – Fukushima came very close to making Tokyo uninhabitable for decades to come – but once again industry lobbies have prevailed over sober analysis and common sense.

The decision by China and the UK is of course taken on purely economic and industrial grounds, marginalising whatever environmental considerations there might be, but sadly it is also a view taken on very different grounds by such splendid environmental campaigners as George Monbiot and Mark Lynas, for both of whom I have enormous respect. But in this matter they are wrong.

The only plausible environmental case for nuclear is that climate change is the greatest threat facing humanity, fossil fuels therefore have to be phased out as quickly as feasible, and nuclear is then the best (or even only) means to fill the gap. This argument is deeply wrong-headed, as the figures irrefutably show. In 2010 the world demand for primary energy was equivalent to 12,000 million tons of oil (Mtoe), 87% of which was provided by oil, coal and gas. Nuclear power contributed 5%, renewables 8%.

To reverse climate change,carbon emissions must be reduced to below their present level, let alone turnaround the current accelerating increase. Can nuclear do that? Suppose there is a (modest) 2% growth in primary energy demand per year for the next 35 years; demand will then double to 24,000 Mtoe. If nuclear power is to absorb all that growth and substitute (say) 4,000 Mtoe of coal, it will have to produce 16,000 Mtoe of energy per year. That is a 25-fold increase on its present level. That level is today provided globally by 440 nuclear reactors, so 25 times that means 11,000 reactors. That means building on average one a day over the next 35 years.

Since nuclear power generation has flatlined over the last decade and sharply delined in the last few years, that seems inconceivable. The economics of nuclear power are increasingly unattractive – from mounting construction costs (currently £6bn per reactor, and rising), long lead time (up to 10 years), uncertainty over future electricity pricing, political hazard (the decision of Germany, Austria, Switzerland to withdraw from nuclear after Fukushima), and vast long-term liabilities (no less that 86% of the current DECC budget goes towards decommissioning old nuclear power stations).

So is there an alternative? There is: non-hydro renewables are growing very fast, by 15% a year by 2010. During 2005-10 global solar hot water and wind power capacity both grew by 25% a year, and global solar PV capacity by 50% a year. If those growth rates were sustained, wind capacity would rise 6,300-fold to 1.25m GW, solar hot water to 1.15m GW, and solar PV to 1.6m GW – the latter alone producing over 1,000 times projected worls primary energy demand in 25 years. Nuclear is dangerous and prohibitively costly, renewables are attractive with falling costs and a potential creator of millions of jobs worldwide.

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