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Rebuke to the nuke

If ever a group of people knew how to undermine years of hard PR graft by displaying their self-doubt, it's those who want to bring us a new batch
of nuclear power plants.

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) had planned to run a seminar in Birmingham between 11 and 12 October, entitled "Nuclear Energy: Technology, Safety and New Build". The advertising encouraged potential delegates to register so that they could “hear experts from EDF, Westinghouse, Horizon Nuclear Power, IBM, National Grid, the Nuclear Industry Association and the Office for Nuclear Development discuss the current opportunities and future for nuclear energy".

No one wanted to, it seems. Or, at least, no one made it a priority. The IET had to cancel the seminar "due to late delegation registrations".
If even those interested in building nuclear reactors can't be bothered to register for a seminar on time, it is hard to believe that they think anyone will be delivering a new batch of reactors any time soon.

It is important, by the way, to call a collection of nuclear power stations a "batch", rather than a "fleet", as has become common. These reactors are not a military asset, to be steered into the path of invading foreigners. They are power stations. And they will be foreign power stations: Britain's nuclear engineers are mostly retired, so not only does the fuel have to be sourced from abroad, so does the workforce designing and building the reactors.

Scientifically speaking, nuclear power is a great idea. Who could be against unlocking the energy held within an atomic nucleus? All we have
to do is demonstrate that it is safe, economically viable and achievable within a time frame that makes it useful. It is pretty easy to show that it is safe. Chernobyl and Fukushima were aberrations, and you could argue that they were not catastrophic for anyone more than a few dozen miles away.

Which leaves only time and money to consider. Here is where the problems arise. Until construction started in 2005, the new plant at Olkiluoto, Finland, was the poster child for the nuclear industry. By 2009, however, when it was supposed to have started generating power, it was more than three years behind schedule. Its owners now say that it will deliver no power before 2013.

Money talks

There's a consistent picture here: the only other nuclear reactor under construction in western Europe (at Flamanville, northern France) is also four years behind schedule. But the killer blow is that both plants are more than €2.5bn over budget. Coupled with late delivery, that will make the cost of electricity from them prohibitively high.

In Europe's deregulated markets, governments can no longer bail out the industry: that would be unfair to nuclear power's competitors. So, any nuclear dreams we once had seem to have gone up in a mushroom cloud of smoke.

It's a shame. The science works just fine. And, despite the Fukushima disaster, a recent Populus survey showed that the British public is more convinced than ever that the benefits of nuclear power outweigh any safety concerns.

In the end, economics rules the world - and the nuclear industry seems to know it. Why else would everyone in the business have decided to stay at home?

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, This is plan B