Backed into a nuclear corner

The recent suggestion that the Government would need to build more nuclear power plants to meet its target of a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2010 caused predictable alarm. Both the Government and the purported source of the story acted quickly to distance themselves from the claim. Dieter Helm, the director of Oxford Economic […]

The recent suggestion that the Government would need to build more nuclear power plants to meet its target of a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2010 caused predictable alarm.

Both the Government and the purported source of the story acted quickly to distance themselves from the claim.

Dieter Helm, the director of Oxford Economic Research Associates, insisted he had not been backing such a move but said that the Government’s target could only be achieved by contemplating ‘very radical changes’ in energy policy.

Helm said while the construction of more nuclear plants would be one way to achieve such a drastic cut in emissions, he was not advocating the step and in any case ‘they could not possibly be built by 2010’.

The Government remains adamant that there are no plans to expand the nuclear sector to achieve its target. ‘None at all,’ said a spokesman at the Department of the Environment Transport and the Regions. ‘That is not an option as far as this government is concerned.’

He said the Government had identified three broad measures to attain its goal: the expansion of energy efficiency measures; more combined heat and power plants to meet industrial needs; and increased use of renewable forms of energy.

There are doubts, however, that this strategy will work. The efficacy of campaigns to persuade the British public to be less wasteful in its energy consumption inevitably depends on the cost of not doing so. This was not a difficult message to get across during the oil price hikes of the 1970s and 1980s, when a trip to the nearest petrol station was all that was needed to hammer the point home.

But, in a climate where gas and electricity prices appear likely to fall in real terms for some years, it may well prove harder.

The continuing conversion of industrial and commercial consumers to CHP will also have a limited impact on the wider picture the target of 10GW by 2010 would still account for less than 20% of peak electricity demand.

Furthermore, the optimistic forecasts for the growth of the sector should be tempered by the expectations on future electricity prices which may well cause companies to think long and hard before investing in CHP plants.

The final plank of the strategy is also open to question. The Government is looking for renewable sources of energy to provide 10% of the national needs by the end of the first decade of the next century a goal that would require at least 5GW of installed capacity.

But the experience to date suggests it will be hard-pressed to meet this target. The first four tranches of the last Government’s Non-Fossil Fuel Obligation which sanctions projects to sign heavily subsidised contracts with regional electricity suppliers have paved the way progressively since 1991 for the construction of more than 1,800MW of wind farms, waste-to-energy projects, biomass schemes and other projects. Yet, as of March this year, only 435.2MW had been brought on stream.

So, while the nuclear proposition is politically unpalatable at the moment, it may well have to be considered if the Government is determined to stick to its guns.

It is not just the nuclear lobby that acknowledges this reality. A senior source at one of the three big coal-fired generators said it was self-evident that more nuclear capacity would be needed to meet the proposed target. ‘I don’t think anybody in the industry would disagree’ he added.

He said the further substitution of coal-fired plant with gas-fired generation would not come close to achieving the goal not only were there no longer ‘huge amounts of coal to drive out’ but gas turbines still produced half as much CO2 as coal generators. With electricity demand predicted to grow by 1 1.5% per year, the switch would do little more than keep emissions constant.

It is not certain, of course, that the UK will ultimately have to contemplate such drastic reductions in CO2 emissions within so tight a time-frame.

For while the current Government views the target as a hard-and-fast domestic commitment, any legally binding international obligations on the UK will undoubtedly be much less severe.

These should be determined at the conference at Kyoto in Japan this December, which is intended to finally establish emission-reduction targets for greenhouse gasses in the industrialised countries.

The European Union’s proposal to the conference will be for a 15% reduction against 1990 levels of the three main greenhouse gases CO2, methane and nitrous oxides. However, this is likely to be by far the most ambitious of the submissions tabled Japan is expected to advance a prospective cut of between 0% and 5% and the target that is ultimately agreed is not expected to exceed the latter figure.

Once the Kyoto accord is signed, the appropriate government departments will start drawing up detailed strategies for meeting both the UK’s international obligations and its own national target.

However, the latter will remain a Labour commitment and not one that a future government of a different political hue would be obliged to observe.