Turn to nuclear

It's the only stable, workable alternative
September 18, 2013

A nuclear power plant is constructed in China's Zhejiang province: of the 69 reactors currently under construction globally, 28 are in China. (© Diego Azubel/EP/Corbis)

The recent troubles in the Middle East, and also in west Africa, mean that oil is trading at its highest prices in six month, at around $115 a barrel. It reminds us that dependence on potentially unstable regions of the world for imports of energy resources may be unwise.

Nuclear, too, has not been free from troubles in recent years. At the stricken Fukushima plant in Japan, the damage caused by the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 was so devastating that it will be years, if not decades, before there can be any confidence that all major problems have been addressed.

But, perversely, the events at Fukushima have reminded the world of both the dangers and the attractions of nuclear energy. Despite the huge external stress to the 1970s reactors on the site, as yet there is no reliable evidence of deaths caused by radiation as a result of the accident, and there probably never will be. Many countries, with the exception of the rather special cases of Japan and Germany, continue to proclaim pro-nuclear policies, including those around the edges of the European Union (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland, Sweden and of course the UK) as well as those as diverse as Turkey, Vietnam, Pakistan and Canada. In most countries where opinion polling has been carried out (including the UK) public attitudes seem to have been effectively unchanged by Fukushima.

Nonetheless, the “nuclear renaissance” has stalled somewhat. As of September 2013 there were 69 reactors under construction globally, the same figure as there had been immediately before Fukushima. Fifty of these are in just four countries—China (with 28), Russia, India and South Korea.

Increasingly the difficulty is economic, not political. The emergence of shale gas in the United States has not only reduced energy prices there but led to the US exporting much more coal at low prices. Nuclear power’s heavy up-front costs make it unattractive in competitive power markets unless it has the prospect of significant long-term price support.

The nature of energy is that the backdrop can change very rapidly—over the last 10 years the UK government has first dismissed new nuclear, then embraced it passionately, then dithered—but the investment horizon for major schemes (new nuclear, gas pipelines and storage facilities, power wires, and tidal barrages) can be measured in decades.

Maybe the main lesson from recent upheaval is that short-term markets cannot deal with the long-term implications of energy policy. If we are about to see another fossil fuel shock then presumably nuclear will swing back into favour. If we are about to see a glut of fracked gas (and we decide climate change is a myth, or fail to agree to combat it) the opposite will happen. But putting our eggs in the shale and climate sceptic basket and failing to invest in workable alternatives (and sadly most renewables are not workable for baseload power) will leave us in a much worse position than building new nuclear facilities, even if we find we could have got by for a bit longer on a new, inevitably limited, source of gas.

More on energy security in this month's Prospect:

The cost of the Syrian crisis: Middle East oil and gas are vulnerable to crises–but what are the alternatives? asks Michael Jefferson