There seems to be some confusion in the Press about whether the serious cracks found in boiler tubes at some of British Energy’s nuclear stations, including Hunterston, will make it more or less likely that there will be more reactors built in Scotland.
Labour’s policy on new reactors in Scotland is still being debated and the manifesto for next May’s Holyrood elections won’t be decided until the November conference. But First Minister Jack McConnell has made it clear that he hopes to see the lives of Scotland’s nuclear plants extended so that new reactor building can be avoided, and giving time for renewables to develop further. (1) The Scotsman has now suggested that the boiler-tube cracking problem might put this policy in jeopardy. (2)
On the other hand, The Independent asked whether the reactor problems would put the kibosh on new reactors. “It remains highly unlikely”, it said “given the experience of privately owned nuclear capacity in this country, that the City could be persuaded to invest without some form of government subsidy or market subvention. An inconvenient truth, perhaps, but a rather important one which ministers seem determined to ignore as they grapple with their planned, nuclear White Paper”. (3)
There is probably some truth in what both newspapers say. Clearly, not being able to extend the life of Hunterston B is going to make meeting Scotland’s electricity demand without exceeding climate change emissions targets more difficult, but, as a recent Garrad Hassan report (4) shows, still quite feasible, especially given the amount currently exported. It also means we need to get serious about developing renewable and energy efficiency programmes now. But British Energy’s problems are also going to make private investors even more wary about getting involved with this risky technology. (5)
For most, the idea of throwing good money after bad in the hope that the next generation of reactors might work properly is simply ludicrous. The opposition SNP said the cracks mean the credibility of building nuclear power stations in Scotland was in tatters, while LibDems called for investment in renewables. (6)
The Scottish Executive is run by a coalition of the Labour and Liberal-Democrat Parties, so might not necessarily follow the same policies as the Labour Government in London. Energy policy is officially reserved to Westminster, but the Executive has the power to approve or refuse planning consent for new power stations. In addition, other areas relating to energy policy are devolved – such as the promotion of renewable energy and energy efficiency, building regulations, environmental regulation, climate change, fuel poverty, and transport.
The Partnership Agreement, which is a joint statement of policy by the two parties in the governing coalition, states that:
“We will not support the further development of nuclear power stations while waste management issues remain unresolved.”(7)
First Minister Jack McConnell has stressed that planning decisions have to be taken purely on planning grounds, and should not be influenced by politics. But he also says the Electricity Act of 1989 gives Scottish ministers complete control over decisions on electricity generating stations. He has spent most of this year saying that he wants to wait until the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management produces its report before making any decisions on new nuclear reactors (8)
Labour’s Annual Scottish conference backed seemingly contradictory resolutions on nuclear power in February. The first resolution sponsored by Amicus and the NUM said the government must “support the fact that immediate plans must be started to replace or renew our existing coal-fired and nuclear generating stations where required.” The second resolution, which was put forward by the Socialist Environment Resources Association and supported by the Co-op Party, was passed unanimously, unlike the first. It recognised “the concerns about nuclear waste, acknowledging that all forms of energy have a carbon footprint and that uranium is not a renewable resource.” (9)
The Union resolution will undoubtedly have put more pressure on McConnell to come out in favour of new reactors, and the CoRWM report has now been published. But it is clear that Jack McConnell is doing everything he can to put off a decision on new nuclear power stations for Scotland until after next May’s Scottish Parliamentary elections. Having said he wants to wait for the final CoRWM report, which was published in July, he now wants a “period of reflection” to consider the issue. (10)
2007 Election Manifesto
The Scotsman reported that Labour’s manifesto for the elections will pave the way for a new generation of nuclear power stations. (11) In fact the manifesto won’t be agreed until the Party conference in Oban at the end of November, so we won’t know the final position until then. And even if Labour remains the largest Party after the election, they will have to form a coalition with at least one other Party.
Nicol Stephen, the Deputy First Minister and leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, has signalled his determination to challenge Labour over nuclear power and make it the defining issue of next year’s election campaign, although the Greens are not convinced they will not sell-out, as they have been accused of doing on other environmental issues. (12)
Nuclear waste problem not resolved
Doubtless at least some advocates of nuclear power will argue that the CoRWM report has now resolved waste management issues, so there is nothing stopping the Scottish Executive approving an application to build a new reactor. CoRWM has said that disposal deep underground is the “best available” long-term solution for the waste, but has not expressed any preference for the type of geology in which a repository should be built. Nor has the committee chosen a site.
The idea that the CoRWM report has somehow ‘resolved’ the nuclear waste issue was described by New Scientist magazine as “optimism gone mad”. It said: “deciding to put waste down ahole, with no idea what form the repository should take or where it should be, is no more of a plan than has existed for the past 30 years.” (13)
Scottish Environmentalists say CoRWM’s report must not be used by the Executive as a pretext for new reactors. Dr Richard Dixon, director of WWF Scotland, said: “The vague possibility of a hole in the ground, at an unknown site, in 70 years, is hardly a green light.”
Although CoRWM says that “geological disposal” represents the best available approach, it also says that interim storage will be required because of the uncertainties surrounding implementation; the creation of suitable facilities “may take several decades” and there may be technical problems or community concerns in siting which could make it difficult, or even impossible. The Committee says there are still uncertainties with regard to the safety of deep geological disposal in general, and there will be uncertainties if and when a specific site is chosen, so there will need to be much more research. Community involvement in proposals for any waste facility should be based on volunteerism. Participation should be based on the expectation that the well-being of the community will be enhanced. (14)
CoRWM says its recommendations “should not be seen as either a red or green light for nuclear new build … New build wastes would extend the time-scales for implementation, possibly for very long but essentially unknowable future periods. Further the political and ethical issues raised by the creation of more wastes are quite different from those relating to [existing] wastes.” (15)
When he was specifically asked at CoRWM’s Brighton Press Conference on 27th April if he thought the recommendations had resolved the problem of nuclear waste, chairman, Gordon MacKerron said “no”. CoRWM has previously said: “If Ministers accept our recommendations, the UK’s nuclear waste problem is not solved. Having a strategy is a start. The real challenge follows.” (16) So there is nothing in the CoRWM report which means the Scottish Executive Partnership Agreement should change.
In a new book called Uncertainty Underground about the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump being built in Nevada, (17) the editors point out that the site was identified in the early 1980s as a potential site for nuclear waste. Yet it is still not open and its fate hangs in the balance. Several billion dollars have been spent, and a large number of scientists and engineers have engaged in every aspect of the problem, yet there are still delays. The key to understanding the scientific challenge involved is to recognise the large uncertainties involved with such an undertaking.
“… an expansion in nuclear energy production simply cannot move forward without resolving the problem of the safe disposal of nuclear waste.”
Clearly, although the Americans appear to be more than 20 years ahead of us, their nuclear waste problem is still not resolved.
Incidentally, John Ritch, director-general of the World Nuclear Association, speaking at a conference in Sydney, has suggested we need a 20-fold expansion in global nuclear capacity. (18) Uncertainty Underground says a ten-fold increase – using a once-through cycle as opposed to reprocessing the spent fuel – would require the opening of a Yucca Mountain repository every year.
New reactors quadruple waste problem
Advocates of nuclear power also say ten more reactors would add only 10% to the volume of radioactive waste, but this is highly misleading because the majority of existing waste is made up of bulky, less hazardous material. As the nuclear waste management body Nirex, points out, the volume is not the whole story, we also need to know what type of waste we will be left with by a programme of new reactors. (19) CoRWM’s latest Radioactive Waste Inventory shows that existing reactors will produce 9,900m3 of packaged high level waste and spent fuel. But ten new AP1000 reactors would leave a legacy of 31,900 m3 – three times the amount already created. (20)
Scotland leads dash for renewables
Whatever the final Labour manifesto position on new reactors, the Scottish Executive’s submission to the UK Energy Review called for more support for renewables, particularly wave and tidal power, and energy efficiency, as well as carbon capture and storage. (21) The Executive says the need to produce lower carbon energy is creating many new business opportunities and green jobs in Scotland. It wants to promote Scotland as a leading location for the development of renewable energy technology, and “invites” the UK to set a more ambitious renewable energy target.
The Executive makes several recommendations on energy efficiency including actively promoting the growth of Energy Services Companies – creating market mechanisms that incentivise energy suppliers and consumers to reduce energy consumption in buildings.
On security of supply the Executive says local generation of electricity, combined heat and power, and renewable heat should have a role to play in reducing the UK’s high reliance on gas for heating, reducing energy costs, and tackling fuel poverty. The Executive therefore invites UKgovernment to examine whether it should be encouraging Combined Heat and Power schemes.
Cracks in Scottish policy?
The Executive’s submission also supported extending the operating lives of Scotland’s two existing nuclear stations. The Scotsman had already reported back in July that life extensions have been thrown into doubt, but this was because of cracks in graphite bricks, rather than boiler tubes. This, the newspaper said, “could fatally undermine the compromise offered to Westminster by Jack McConnell, the First Minister, to extend the life-cycle of the reactors only until renewable energy sources can take their place”. But this claim was rejected by British Energy. (22)
Should the Scottish Executive be reconsidering its position that Scotland does not need new nuclear stations, it should read two papers published this year, one by Garrad Hassan for the Nuclear Free Local Authorities Scotland, and one by environment NGOs. Both show that Scotland can cope without new nuclear reactors, even without life extensions. (23)
To go nuclear or not, that is the question
McConnell appeared to reject nuclear power just before the summer break, in a speech in Dumfries when he said: “I am not in favour of new nuclear generation in Scotland until the issue of waste is satisfactorily resolved. Nuclear waste is virtually permanent and potentially very, very lethal, so we should not in Scotland countenance any extension of nuclear power.” (24)
Yet on September 3rd, the Sunday Times reported that McConnell is set to abandon his “staunch opposition to nuclear power” in a major U-turn that challenges public opinion and threatens an irrevocable split with the Liberal Democrats. (25) This was an odd story that might well have been overly influenced by nuclear spin doctors. The same paper had previously only said of Jack McConnell that there is a “suspicion that he is instinctively anti-nuclear”. (26)
The Sunday Times said McConnell’s change of direction will be signalled in the Labour manifesto for next year’s Holyrood election. It will recommend a balanced energy policy in
which nuclear, as well as renewables and coal, will play a part. The paper must have psychics working for it.
The newspaper, however, did raise an important question about the Scottish Executive’s powers. It said that sources close to the executive say ministers have no choice other than to
keep the nuclear option open. The waste issue can be only one consideration among many others. If the Executive just says ‘we’re going to rule out new nuclear power stations in principle until the waste issue is sorted out’, it could end up being taken to court for a judicial review by any company whose application to build a reactor is turned down.
Clearly this is a grey area, which ultimately can only be decided by the courts. But any company wanting to build a new reactor in Scotland will want a measure of public and political support – it is not going to take the Scottish Executive to a judicial review if there is overwhelming public opposition to new reactors in Scotland. Time to make our feelings known then.
The so-called ‘balanced energy policy” being promoted by some of the Trade Unions in Scotland suggests that ‘we need every energy technology’ in order to successfully tackle the climate change problem. This implies that we have infinite amounts of money to spend on energy projects, which is obviously nonsense. Resources are scarce, so we need to make choices. Because climate change is a serious and urgent problem then we must spend our limited resources as effectively and quickly as possible – best buys first, not the more the merrier. For each pound we spend we need to buy the maximum amount of ‘solution’ possible. On both criteria, cost and speed, nuclear power is probably the least effective climate-stabilizing option on offer.
As well as being more expensive, and taking longer to implement, the problem with spending on nuclear power is that it will detract from spending on other more effective options. Not only does nuclear power drain resources away from other options, but it also distracts attention from important decisions that have to be made to support those other options. And because there are so many problems associated with getting new reactor construction off the ground, it might not work. So in the worst case we might find that efforts to tackle climate change are seriously damaged by a decision to go ahead with reactor construction. (27)
As the Scottish Executive has been keen to point of, Scotland has the opportunity to develop a sustainable energy industry and a renewable energy manufacturing base. Let’s not mess it up now by adding to the uncertainty for potential investors. The Executive needs to rule out new reactors once and for all and get on with implementing its vision of a sustainable energy system for Scotland.
(16) CoRWM Draft report