Anti-nuclear policy won’t help us meet climate goals

Torness - end of the line for nuclear energy in Scotland

The Westminster government has finalised its list of potential sites for the UK's next generation nuclear of power plants, and Scotland is conspicuous by its absence. This should come as no surprise given the antipathy towards nuclear energy voiced by Holyrood in recent years. However, with the publication of the list, the finality of our anti-nuclear policy is now clear.

Along with Germany, Scotland will become one of the few nations to have successfully developed, and then entirely abandoned nuclear energy. This is a far reaching decision whose consequences will roll on for decades to come. Abandoning what is by far our single largest source of cost effective, zero carbon base load electrical energy is an unsettling prospect. As in Germany, energy policy decisions have been driven by irrational fear, while quietly ignoring major shifts in outlook for world energy markets.

One of the anticipated benefits of renewable energy is that while it is currently expensive, it is a hedge against price increases for resources such as methane (natural gas), and even uranium. Our energy policy is therefore taking a punt that fuel prices will rise significantly as global reserves dwindle. But fears of a future of energy scarcity may well be unfounded. Through innovations in drilling technology, vast new reserves of so-called shale gas look set to be exploited. The normally conservative International Energy Agency (IEA) asks if we are about to enter a ‘Golden Age of Gas’. Rather than the decline of hydrocarbons predicted by peak oil doomers, the world may well be awash with them.

But while many are rightly enthused by the potential of shale gas, if we’re serious about displacing carbon from energy production then nuclear will be a growing part of the global energy mix. History certainly supports this view. Since the beginning of the transition from wood to coal during the Elizabethan era, our economy has continuously moved towards lower carbon fuels of greater energy density. Methane produces about half the carbon emissions of coal, while nuclear provides essentially zero carbon energy from compact plants.

The future growth of methane from shale, and the further development of nuclear energy neatly follows this historical path. And for very good reason. It was through the improved energy density of coal that James Watt and his successors provided an escape from the limitations of traditional diffuse energy sources such as wood. The steady replacement of wood with energy dense coal allowed energy and labour costs to decouple in the late 19th century and so delivered our modern prosperity. Through the liberating effects of cheap energy, carbohydrate fuelled human labour was replaced with hydrocarbon fuelled machines.

These historical transitions to fuels of greater energy density were environmentally as well as socially progressive. During the Elizabethan era wood for fuel became scarce and large tracts of the landscape barren. Such was the shortage of wood in central Scotland during the reign of James VI it was quipped that, “if Judas had repented in the king's native land [Scotland], he would have been hard put to find a tree on which to hang himself”. The advent of energy dense coal from the ground eventually began to displace wood from forests as a primary source of energy. Similarly, the first casualty of commercial oil production in 1859 were whaling fleets, as oil from the ground fractionated into kerosene replaced oil from whales to fuel lamps.

As an indication of the future benefits of energy density, consider that the most northerly site on the UK government’s list for next generation nuclear plants is Cumbria, about as close to the Scottish border as is possible. Here a colossal 3,600 MW of reliable, carbon free power is planned from compact next generation reactors on a single square kilometre of land. The reactors will produce each year the energy output equivalent to 30 times that from the Whitelee wind farm, currently the largest onshore wind farm in Europe covering an area of 55 square kilometres. And per unit of energy produced, they will require a small fraction of the steel and concrete.

An energy mix dominated by methane and nuclear now looks to be the most attractive option for cost effective, reliable electrical energy, while still giving room for the development of renewables as part of a balanced energy policy. By happy coincidence this is also the most effective and pragmatic way to displace carbon from energy production. In future we can use methane, uranium and later thorium, not just because they are cleaner fuels, but because they are better.

In contrast, an energy mix dominated by renewable energy assumes that governments will continue to support the hefty premiums needed to meet EU production targets, paid for through higher energy bills. However, if industry and consumers balk at the cost of renewable energy as production grows sharply in the years ahead, Scotland could be left with an expensive renewable energy infrastructure and a shrinking export market as our neighbours burn methane and fission uranium.

As in Germany, our anti-nuclear policy is also creating a hill to climb in meeting climate goals. Both nations have future plans for a massive growth of on-shore wind, while nuclear output vanishes. The sole result of this energy transition will be to substitute compact, base-load nuclear energy for about the same quantity of diffuse, intermittent renewable energy. It will have no real impact on climate policy since the life-cycle carbon emissions of nuclear and wind are both minimal.

While the rest of the UK will push ahead with developing the next generation of nuclear energy, our policy is based on a requirement to eradicate nuclear energy from Scotland. It also foresees a future of energy scarcity, when in fact we just may see a future of energy abundance. The primary fuels of the future are likely to be methane and uranium, part of a long historical transition to cleaner fuels of higher energy density. A future dominated by diffuse renewable energy looks to be an increasingly risky bet.

First published The Herald 29 August 2011