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Nuclear nonsense

The ever louder rumblings over the past half year of a nuclear power industry comeback reached a crescendo last month. Articles with the same broad message burst forth in the mainstream press on both sides of the Atlantic: only investment in a massive program of nuclear build can save the world from the ravages of global warming. The New York Times spun its story on the claim that top ranking environmentalists now see nuclear as indispensable. The British press was stirred to action by a blatantly leaked memo from inside the corridors of government warning that urgent action is needed to spur a nuclear revival before the country runs out of power (page 49).

Make no mistake about it, the crescendo was no coincidence. It was masterfully orchestrated by a well constructed and well oiled public relations machine, painstakingly put together over the past year by a nuclear industry facing steep decline. Nuclear capacity is going offline around the world and very little is being built -- just three new reactors were completed during 1998-2003 and of the list of 25 supposedly in construction, very few are in the West. All the signs indicate that nuclear is stopping at nothing to save its skin. As an astute article documenting nuclear's PR spending in the New Statesman, a British political commentary magazine, put it: "We are all being taken in by a carefully planned public relations strategy."

A major part of that strategy is to subtly and quietly undermine the technical and economic ability of wind power to play a major role in electricity supply. In a true wolf-in-sheep's clothing trick, the nuclear lobby pours forth woolly words on "partnerships" with renewable energy, while savaging wind behind the scenes. Among the so-called "fact sheets" from the World Nuclear Association is one on renewables. It blithely tells us, after a wicked manipulation of statistics, that Britain's 20% renewables target "is neither technically nor economically feasible." That is a downright lie. Britain's power system planners are not idiots. They have studied the effect of 20% wind alone and there are no technical barriers.

There are no economic barriers either, as we devote space to pointing out in this issue in a detailed comparison of nuclear and wind costs (pages 43-47). It was not an easy exercise. While the cost of wind today can be easily determined from the wealth of available facts, nuclear costs can only be arrived at by accepting what the industry claims it can build plant for. Actual numbers are in short supply. But we took nuclear at its word, using its estimates of cost should it be allowed to build a series of eight stations, 10 GW, in Britain. (Power from just one nuclear plant looks so expensive as to be off the wall chart). We then compared generation costs for nuclear and wind on two level playing fields: if both were funded in the public sector and if both were financed in the private sector. Not surprisingly, wind costs no more to generate than nuclear in the public sector and is 20% cheaper in the private sector. No wonder nuclear tacitly admits it cannot survive without massive government support.

As relevant as generation cost is, the real nub of the economic issue is what the consumer pays after all the costs are included, such as nuclear de-commissioning and extra reserves for wind. Even the nuclear industry admits that until wind is providing 10-15% of electricity, adding wind is cheaper than adding nuclear. After that there is room for some doubt and discussion, as our article reveals in a neat graphic. Significantly, with up to 30% wind on a system, or perhaps even more, there is no certainty that nuclear is cheaper, even with the huge economic bonus of a 10 GW order, and certainly not if the order has to be met in the private sector. We did not embark on a calculation for 10 GW of wind, but our invited columnist this month provides an indication of the economic feasibility of gigawatt scale wind power (pages 38-41).

Hit back with brilliance

For the most part the nuclear lobby has been careful to sidestep the economics issue. The "too cheap to metre" claims of the 1960s, when it proved to be anything but, have yet to be lived down. Instead, the industry's battle-cry is that "only nuclear power offers clean, environmentally friendly energy on a massive scale." That a technology producing highly lethal waste with no acceptable means of disposal is "clean" and "environmentally friendly" beggars belief -- and the back-handed swipe to wind that it cannot match nuclear on scale is plain audacious. Nuclear supplies 16% of world power. In Britain it supplies 24% and in America 20%. Nobody would dispute that at these levels nuclear plays a major role. Well, in Denmark, wind supplies 20% and power system operator Eltra says 50% would be okay too.

Most of nuclear's claims to credibility are based on what it says other generation technologies cannot achieve. If environmentalists get duped into believing nuclear is a necessity because nothing else will do, public support for it will return. If governments get duped by nuclear into stampeding its development, the focus on wind support will be replaced by a focus on nuclear. A huge public debate on nuclear and renewables is brewing. It would be extremely naive for the wind lobby to believe that it will emerge the natural winner. Wind may have all the arguments on its side, but it has to put them across in an imaginative and clear cut way if they are ever to be heard, let alone understood, by mainstream opinion formers. Complex issues need brilliant presentation.

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