Separating fact from fission

Hunterston B nuclear power station

Hunterston B nuclear power station. 

Nuclear is no panacea for the climate crisis - even if we build new power plants they will come on line too late.

Nuclear power projects are too slow. This is a killer argument for which nuclear proponents can have no answer.

“The role of civil nuclear power in meeting the UK’s electricity needs and energy security” has just been debated by peers in the House of Lords. Had a television inquisitor put that question to me, I’d start by saying that I don’t accept the terms of the question.

Read: Nuclear power's economic failure

New nuclear should have no role in the UK’s electricity generation, and policies promoting new plants - far from offering any hope of security - present a threat to that essential provision in this age of shocks.

The failed 20th century technology that is nuclear power is something I’ve been debating for a long time. So I could go on at length about the failure to find a solution to the pressing issue of nuclear waste - as Lib Dem Lord Oates did very effectively in the debate.


I could talk about safety issues - from Three Mile Island to Chernobyl to Fukushima. And while many in the debate tried to say, well “not so many people died” on those occasions, that fails to address the huge risks, and in our age of shocks, the increasing dangers presented by multiple climate, human and physical threats that could hamper recovery efforts when things start to go wrong.

I could talk to the links of “civil” nuclear to nuclear weapons - those hideous weapons of mass destruction. I could talk about the handing of enormous sums of money to multinational companies - or foreign governments.

But there are two important arguments less often aired that deserve to be put.

First, that new nuclear power plants are a distraction from what we should be doing. Think about how often you hear ministers talking about new nuclear - such as the latest championing of the - rather modest - government investment in the Rolls Royce fantasy of “small” nuclear reactors.

Nuclear power projects are too slow. This is a killer argument for which nuclear proponents can have no answer.

You also rarely hear ministers talking about renewables. And consider how seldom you hear the politicians in government in serious discussion about energy conservation. For the cleanest, greenest, energy you can possibly have is the energy that you don’t need to use.


The fact that government ministers are not talking about this is unsurprising, given that the Green Homes Grant was such an utter disaster. But, in fact, the silence predates that particular Rishi Sunak mess.

Talking about - and acting on - new nuclear power swallows up the space where the renewables and conservation should be.

That’s something that’s true on a global scale, as a brilliant University of Sussex study last year demonstrated. There are, in the academic jargon, path dependencies that see renewables and nuclear crowding each other out.

And it is most painfully evident in the UK in the failure to pursue the most obvious, and productive, path for renewables, community energy.

Despite promises - and recommendations from the Environmental Audit Committee, the Net Zero Strategy contained no plan of action for a key means of spreading prosperity around the country, as well as helping to secure a resilient, decentralised energy system and engaging people directly in the essential drive to Net Zero.


Secondly, nuclear power projects are too slow. This is a killer argument for which nuclear proponents can have no answer.

The fastest anyone could conceivably imagine new nuclear coming online is well over a decade. And that’s best case: the people of Finland are hoping that their new plant at Olkiluoto will come online soon. The original scheduled completion date was 2009.

Allison Macfarlane, director of the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, and a former chair of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission, told Al Jazeera:  “I live in a pragmatic, realistic world.

"And I don’t think, at least in the next 10 or 20 years, that nuclear power will be able to have a big impact on reducing carbon emissions because we can’t build new plants fast enough.”

And these two decades are precisely the time when we have to slash emissions, if we are to “keep 1.5 alive”, as the CPO26 climate talks set out to do.


Even before last week’s debate commenced, however, I knew that there’d be bound to be proponents of nuclear fission.

Hardly surprising when Greg Hands, the UK minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change, told the Nuclear Industry Association's conference this month that the government was on a “quest for fusion”. Curious terminology that - rather reminiscent of tales of the Holy Grail.

Now I’m keen, very keen, on fusion. It is what all of life on Earth relies on. It always has. It has always been there, and it will - on any meaningful timeframe - always be there. I’m talking, of course, about the sun, operating on a scale massively beyond anything we humans can produce.

It is the sun that drives solar power, obviously. It also drives, ultimately, wind power.

There’s an obvious parallel here with carbon capture and storage: the proposal to create very expensive, uncertain engineering projects to do something that nature does us for free.


Just as we need to leave the coal in the hole, the gas in the ground and the oil in the orb, we need to rely on the fission of the sun to continue to power our planet as it always has through using solar and wind power.

Finally, it is worth noting why, as well as all the money to be made by existing, powerful vested interests, there’s such enthusiasm for nuclear power. The Economist unintentionally summed it up well in a recent leader in favour of small nuclear reactors, saying “it makes fighting climate change a lot easier”.

Nuclear power rests on the fantasy that we can continue with the economic model we have now - exceeding the planetary boundaries in so many ways, not just in trashing the climate - by changing the technology. We can’t.

You can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. We need an energy system that works with the planet, not seeks to bulldoze over it.

This Author

Natalie Bennett is a member of the House of Lords, and a member of the Green party.

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