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13 May 2014updated 19 Sep 2023 3:12pm

The case for solar and wind power is strong, but UK governments stubbornly stick with nuclear

Countries like Germany, China and Japan are racing ahead in switching to renewable energy sources, while the UK continues to stubbornly stick to outdated nuclear power.

By Keith Barnham

Why is the UK lagging far behind Germany in exploiting solar photovoltaic (PV) electricity and onshore wind power? Could an independent Scotland beat Germany to an all-renewable electricity supply? One important factor is the obsession of both Conservative and Labour governments with nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

In 2006, at the time of the Labour government’s Energy Review, David Lowry and I co-authored a New Statesman article entitled “Strange love: why did Tony Blair learn to stop worrying and love nuclear power?” It addressed this question: given the strength of the case against new nuclear reactors, what other factors may have persuaded Blair that nuclear was necessary? We discussed possible links between civil and military nuclear activities in the UK and the desire to be part of any future plutonium economy.

Eight years on we have witnessed nuclear disaster at Fukushima, new reactors are still a decade away, construction costs continue to rise and only the French government-owned EDF is serious about new build. In desperation the coalition government has shifted from “allowing the market to build” to inventing “contracts for difference” whereby taxpayers guarantee a price for nuclear electricity, ten years from now, at double the current wholesale price.

Let’s reconsider why successive UK governments have stubbornly persisted with this expensive and unnecessary technology. It helps to contrast with the energy policies of other countries.

Early this millennium, the German Socialist/Green coalition introduced a feed-in tariff (FIT) policy to stimulate renewable energy. This was so successful that in 2010 the German Environment Agency announced the target of 2050 for an all-renewable electricity supply. In 2011 came the Fukushima disaster and the German government’s decision not to replace existing nuclear reactors when they reach the end of their working life.

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The argument that the take-up of renewable energy is influenced by the link between civil and military nuclear activities is strengthened if we widen the comparison to other countries. The International Energy Agency – Photovoltaic Power System program (IEA-PVPS) collates data on PV installations in 23 countries. In recent years Germany, Italy and Japan have led in PV installations. All three were on the losing side in World War II and have not developed nuclear weapons. Two of these, Germany and Italy, have decided against new nuclear reactors. Japan was world leader in PV for many years but was overtaken by Germany in 2005 when Japan decided to prioritise new nuclear reactors.

The IEA-PVPS listings give the PV installations of five nuclear weapon state: China, France, Israel, UK and USA. Four of these have each installed far less PV than the three world leaders. The exception is China. Initially it was way behind its Asian rival Japan, but about a decade ago China decided to become market leader in the mass production of solar panels. They achieved this goal by 2010. They then diverted some production to the home market. By 2012 their domestic PV installations had caught up with the faltering Japanese.

These comparisons show that countries without nuclear weapons are more open to the advantages of PV electricity compared to nuclear power. On the other hand, countries with nuclear weapons have governments and a powerful military-industrial complex that see the renewables as a threat to nuclear power.

The nature of the civil-military link is shrouded in secrecy, but probably differs in every nuclear weapon state. In the UK evidence for the link is concrete, quite literally. The ageing concrete silos of Sellafield contain radioactive waste from half-a century of separating plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. Sellafield’s vaults contain over 100 tonnes of plutonium. It must be kept out of the environment and away from terrorists for hundreds of thousands of years.

Both toxic legacies result from two political decisions, taken in the 1950s. The first nuclear electricity supplied to any national grid was a by-product of plutonium production in the UK’s military reactors. The first generation of UK civil reactors was designed so weapons grade plutonium could be extracted in their early years of operation. All the spent fuel from civil and military Magnox reactors has been reprocessed to separate the plutonium. As a result the UK has the world’s largest stockpile of civil plutonium.

The safety and security of this stockpile is probably one of the reasons the government is so keen on new nuclear build. One option for dealing with it is recycling into mixed oxide fuel (MOX) which could be burnt in new reactors. This is unlikely to be the safest option and is definitely not economic. It would mark a decisive step towards the plutonium economy that David Lowry and I feared. MOX raises new security and safety issues and only postpones the disposal problem. New plutonium will be created as the MOX fuel is burnt.

There are other, more constructive, political influences that have boosted Germany’s lead over the UK in renewable energy. In Germany a large number of PV, wind and biogas generators are owned co-operatively. Half the new wind turbines installed in 2012 in Germanywere community owned. One advantage is that opposition to new wind and PV farms is weakened when there is a clear local benefit.

PV and wind power are also popular as they are starting to reduce the wholesale cost of electricity in Germany. The maximum electricity demand in daytime is around noon both in Germany and the UK, summer and winter. The PV power supply is greatest when the sun is highest in the sky around noon.

This coincidence has reduced the wholesale cost of daytime electricity in Germany. In most countries electricity costs more during the day when demand is high than at night when it is low. In 2007 in Germany the wholesale cost of electricity was 30 percent higher at its peak around noon than at night. That difference has steadily declined, summer and winter, as the amount of PV power connected to the grid has increased. When the sun shines, electricity from PV generators costs less than conventional electricity generation. PV has no fuel and only a small operational cost. On some sunny days the peak wholesale cost of electricity on the German grid falls below the night-time price.

Like PV, wind power has no fuel and only small operational costs. Hence wind too is also supplying cheaper electricity than conventional sources. The ideal back-up to PV and wind power is electricity from biogas derived from farm and landfill waste. This is cheaper and has a much lower carbon footprint than natural gas electricity generation.

This good news from Germany could become an issue in the Scottish independence vote. Scotland has decided to aim for an all-renewable electricity supply by 2020. The evidence from Germany is that this policy will lead to lower wholesale electricity prices. This could boost the Yes campaign.

The retail price of electricity could also be important in the independence election. In Germany and the UK, the retail electricity price for householders is much higher than the wholesale one because of taxes, levies, transmission costs and distribution company costs and profits. An independent Scotland would be free to reduce the taxes and levies set by Westminster.

Finally, an all-renewable electricity target could actually reduce the amount of the energy subsidies an independent parliament has to pay. Westminster subsidises gas more than it does all the renewables combined. An independent Scotland could improve their chances of achieving the 2020 goal by transferring most of its gas subsidy to the renewables.

Keith Barnham is Emeritus Professor of Physics at Imperial College London and author of The Burning Answer: A User’s Guide to the Solar Revolution (Weidenfeld& Nicolson, 15 May 2014).

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