14 April 2011

If not nuclear, then what?

The Fukushima nuclear accident has now been upgraded to level 7 in terms of severity, the same as Chernobyl, and the evacuation zone around the stricken plant has been widened to 40km. Not only is nuclear power not safe (see herehere for Dr Helen Caldicott's response to George Monbiot's hysterical conversion to nuclear power), it’s not green, it’s too expensive, it crowds out renewables investment, it won’t come in time, it can only be an interim solution, it will only provide a tiny fraction of our energy needs, it won’t reduce our carbon emissions significantly, it’s too centralised, the waste can’t be made safe, and the industry has an appalling track record of lies and cover ups.

If the forthcoming review of the UK nuclear industry concludes that new nuclear should go ahead over here because: a) we don’t have, nor are planning to build, any reactors of the same design as Fukushima; or b) we don’t suffer from the sort of seismic activity that Japan does, then that will be a complete whitewash.

There are perfectly good non-nuclear solutions to the climate and energy crises but they all require a lot more intervention than the coalition government seems prepared to contemplate. They are: 1) energy efficiency; 2) renewables; and 3) demand management.

1) energy efficiency

As it stands, the government’s Green Deal – under which householders can borrow funds for energy efficiency measures to be repaid out of energy bill savings – is set to be a completely inadequate sticking plaster solution. It feels like the government has decided that existing buildings are too difficult to deal with seriously which is why they’re so gung-ho about new nuclear – to fuel electric radiators the energy from which will then be wasted through leaky windows, walls, roofs and floors. See here for information about the Passivhaus standard which is, in our opinion, the only way to create genuinely low energy buildings.(1) Asking the UK’s building sector to refurbish buildings using a proper engineering standard will be a challenge, but it is at least a coherent approach. Unlike new nuclear and the Green Deal.

2) renewables

Nuclear has taken up a huge amount of civil servant time over the last few years. That’s time that could have been spent on renewables. Britain has by far the most potential for wind and tidal power in Europe because of our geography. 40% of Europe's wind passes through these isles.(2) Yet in 2010 we produced just 3.2% of our electricity from wind.

Germany obtained 9.4% of its electricity from wind in 2010, Spain generated 14.4% and Denmark managed a whopping 24%.(3) The reason the Danes are so far ahead on wind is because they learnt the right lessons from the oil shocks of the 1970s and started planning for a renewably-powered future back then. The UK, by contrast, was blinded by the discovery of North Sea Oil.

3) demand management

Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) are a way of using the market to reduce fossil fuel energy consumption.(4) Every adult is given an equal free entitlement of TEQs units each week. Other energy users (government, industry etc.) bid for their units at a weekly auction. If you use less than your entitlement, you can sell your surplus. If you need more, you can buy them. All trading takes place at a single national price, which will rise and fall in line with demand. When you buy energy, such as petrol for your car or electricity for your household, units corresponding to the amount of energy you have bought are deducted from your TEQs account, in addition to your money payment. The total number of units available in the country is set out in the TEQs Budget, which goes down each year.

The government's Carbon Plan, containing mostly old announcements in shiny new wrapping paper, is simply not good enough.


1) http://www.cuttingthecarbon.co.uk/home/passivhaus-standard
2) http://www.energysavingtrust.org.uk/Generate-your-own-energy/Wind-Turbines
3) http://ewea.org/fileadmin/ewea_documents/documents/statistics/>/EWEA_Annual_Statistics_2010.pdf
4) http://www.teqs.net