B.Oris Johnson’s Energy Security Strategy sounded more like cobbled-together instructions from the editors of certain right-wing media outlets than a considered, evidence-based policy.
Kwasi Kwarteng, his energy minister, claimed the strategy would reduce bills over time. But as they put nuclear energy, North Sea oil and gas, and fracking at the center of the plan, there isn’t much truth in that – much like the claims that Downing Street followed its own Covid rules.
New nuclear is about twice as expensive as most renewables and gas-powered electricity is currently up to three times more expensive than renewables. The government also announced that small modular reactors (SMRs) will form a “key part of the nuclear project pipeline”. For those who are not aware, SMRs are a proposal from the UK’s nuclear submarine manufacturer Rolls Royce to build small nuclear reactors in a central factory, for distribution around the UK.
So, I decided to pose four basic questions to Kwarteng’s department about this “key” element:
1. What will be the added cost for consumer bills if they build 10 SMRs?
2. Will the reactors be privately insured or will taxpayers bear the brunt?
3. What will be the decommissioning costs and who will pay?
4. Which country will supply the uranium?
After four days I got a call from his press office saying, “These issues are being looked into by our policy people and Rolls Royce. There are no definitive answers at this stage.”
Here is a government, in the midst of cost-of-living and climate crises, claiming to reduce consumer bills and deliver a 95 per cent zero carbon grid by 2030. And yet, they could not answer even basic questions about the “key part ” of the strategy they have pieced together.
Many environmentalists reject nuclear due to the decades it can take to build and its eye-watering costs. There is no reason to believe SMRs will be any faster in development or come in any cheaper than the current fleet of nuclear plants. SMRs have been “in development” in many other nuclear states for decades, without a single plant delivering grid-priced electricity to date.
The US’s NuScale SMR project has been a nightmare of delays and cost over-runs. South Korea’s SMR program has likewise failed to produce a working plant, despite over a decade of development.
Even the UK government admits that production of these SMRs would start in the early 2030s at the earliest – and that’s if this untried technology passes all safety tests, during a five-year assessment from the Office for Nuclear Regulation. No insurer is willing to carry the risk of a nuclear catastrophe, either. This is understandable given that the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster cost Japan an estimated $100 USD (125 trillion Japanese Yen).
The fact that the government has no answers about how these SMRs will be decommissioned is crucial, as the Rolls Royce-built SMR reactors for the UK’s retired submarine fleet have been sitting in rotting floating vessels tied up at Rosyth dockyard in Scotland for decades, with so solution yet in sight.
According to the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency’s latest report, the costs for “cleaning up” Britain’s closing nuclear power stations, has soared to over £132bn pounds, having nearly tripled between 2017 and 2022. Remember about £5bn would insulate every roof in Britain to modern standards, reducing fuel poverty for millions for decades to come.
Another lurking issue is that many of the proposed sites for the SMRs are at existing coastal nuclear power plants. Numerous experts have warned that with accelerating ice-melt at the polar caps, these will be increasingly under threat of inundation. Thus, insurance and decommissioning would be a huge invisible taxpayer subsidy to SMRs, as renewables pay for their own insurance and decommissioning costs.
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It is bizarre that the government are unable to say where the uranium to power the plants would come from. 54 per cent of current uranium production comes from just three former Soviet republics: Kazakhstan, Russia and Uzbekistan. Kazakhstan alone produces 41 per cent, and recently invited the Russian army to quell a rebellion. So much for UK “energy independence” with this nuclear led strategy.
Doug Parr, chief scientist at Greenpeace told me: “The government is making a bet on something that may not even work and it does not solve the dangerous hazards implicit in all nuclear reactors.”
Parr pointed out that there has not been an external, evidence-led independent review of UK energy policy since 2002, which ruled out nuclear being part of the solution. It seems clear to me that any independent analysis of Boris’s “energy strategy”, would find it just as guilty of misleading the British public, as he is with Partygate.
Our country desperately needs a new, honest energy strategy, as much as it needs a new, honest prime minister. Otherwise millions more poorer families will go hungry and cold, and the climate crisis will continue to run out of control.