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Britain's Nuclear Problem

Last week saw a triple-faceted disaster unfold in the UK nuclear industry, with Cumbria’s refusal to play host to a planned underground waste storage centre, the Sellafield site facing prosecution for sending radioactive waste to landfill instead of the low level waste repository it was intended for, and, most worryingly, Centrica’s announcement that it will not proceed with its plans to build nuclear reactors in Suffolk and Somerset.

15th February 2013    |     Kate Roche: Rolton Group

New plants have not been constructed in almost twenty years, and orders hadn’t been placed for a long time before then; the resultant energy generation gap has left the UK teetering on the edge of a blackout as it struggles to meet Governmental cuts to fossil fuels whilst simultaneously looking for alternative clean energies. As George Monbiot astutely writes in his Guardian article on the same topic, ‘Replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy – which is essential if we're to have any chance of meeting our climate change targets – is hard enough. Replacing fossil fuels and nuclear power with renewables is harder still.’

The trouble with the UK’s current strategy is that it wholly relies on private companies to saddle themselves with the startlingly high costs of building and running nuclear plants. These sites are capable of running for a few decades but produce radioactive waste with half-lives reaching into the tens and even hundreds of thousands of years, amounting to a sizeable responsibility and a very expensive commitment. Few are prepared to wade into such choppy waters, but this shouldn’t come as a surprise: when the energy industry was privatised in the 1990s, nuclear had to be removed from the equation before anyone would invest in the newly created regional boards. They were a risky prospect then and they remain so today, so why is history repeating itself?

With Centrica’s retreat, the Government’s ambitions to produce 16gigawatts of low carbon energy by creating three consortia of European energy companies look to have dissolved: first to bow out was SSE in 2011, followed by the German RWE and E.ON venture in March 2012, buckling under the mounting costs after their home country decided to withdraw from nuclear in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. The proposed Governmental incentive of Contracts for Difference is yet to materialise, and as such it can be little surprise that vast expense is the most cited reason for withdrawal; the companies have been left with no reassurance to give their shareholders as to why it’s worth such significant and long-term investment.

The UK needs power. Energy forms such an essential part of British life that most would struggle to even conceptualise a day without it. Heretofore, nuclear energy has always been state owned; a national solution to a national issue, as necessary as public education and the health service. Expecting private companies to be champing at the bit seems foolhardy at best given the remarkably high cost, which is exacerbated by a lengthy construction process and results in a slow return on investment, the main driving force of private industry. Sam Laidlaw, Chief Executive of Centrica, reinforced this as the priority, stating: ‘Where we see attractive returns we will continue to invest in Britain's energy future.’ With values centered on profits and shareholder interests, the requirements of the nation’s citizens have been placed firmly in the backseat when in this instance they should surely be taking priority.

Nuclear has the potential to be a significant part of the energy mix, and is thus arguably too important to be left in the hands of private industry. Energy is not an optional extra, the mint on a hotel pillow. It is one of the foundations upon which the nation operates, and a variety of low carbon technologies must be utilized to meet our huge and increasing requirements for power whilst cutting emissions.

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