During COP26, Nuclear Needs Net Zero laid on a pro-nuclear flash mob in central Glasgow, complete with young dancers wearing ‘we need to talk about nuclear’ T-shirts. Such is the ostensibly fresh, youthful face of today’s nuclear lobby.
Of course, all this is par for the course in the creative world of PR. But there are more substantive grounds why nuclear advocates might wish to avoid too much public scrutiny at the moment. One reality, which can be agreed on from all sides, is that this is by far the worst period in the 70-year history of this ageing industry. So how come it is benefitting from growing and noisy support in mainstream and social media? Why are easily refuted arguments still being deployed to justify new nuclear power alongside renewables in the energy supply mix? And why has the media seized so enthusiastically on a few prominent converts to the nuclear cause?
Nuclear loses out to renewables
At current prices, atomic energy now costs around three times as much as wind or solar power. And that’s before you consider the full expense of waste management, elaborate security, anti-proliferation measures or periodic accidents. For more than a decade, nuclear has been plagued by escalating costs, expanding build times and crashing orders. Trends in recent years are all steeply in the wrong direction.
So the rising clamour of advocacy seems to be in inverse proportion to performance. Whatever view one takes, nuclear power is in a worse position than it’s ever been compared with low-carbon alternatives – and a position that is rapidly declining further.
Among those few countries still pursuing large-scale nuclear new-build programmes, most (like the UK) are either equipped with, or actively chasing, nuclear weapons. But even in the UK (home to one of the proportionally most ambitious nuclear programmes in the world), official data unequivocally shows that renewable energy seriously outpaces nuclear power as a pathway to zero-carbon energy.
In fact, despite misleading suggestions to the contrary by senior figures, background government data has for decades shown that the massive scale of viable UK renewable resources is clearly adequate for all foreseeable needs. Even with storage and flexibility costs included, renewables are available far more rapidly and cost-effectively than nuclear power.
So, for all the breakdancing, it really is a conundrum why persistently bullish government and industry claims on nuclear power remain so seriously under-challenged in the wider debate. It is becoming ever more clear that nuclear plans are diverting attention, money and resources that could be far more effective if used in other ways.
One impact of this continuing official nuclear support is that climate action is being diminished and slowed. As a paper in Nature Energy (which one of us co-authored) showed last year, in worldwide data over the past three decades, the scales of national nuclear programmes do not tend to correlate with generally lower carbon emissions. The building of renewables does.
In fact, this study found “a negative association between the scales of national nuclear and renewables attachments. This suggests nuclear and renewables… tend to crowd each other out.”
The issues are, of course, complex. But this finding supports what the dire performance picture also predicts: that nuclear power diverts resources and attention away from more effective strategies, increasing costs to consumers and taxpayers. So it is even odder that loud voices continue to make naïve calls to ‘do everything’ – that nuclear must on principle be considered ‘part of the mix’ – as if expense, development time, limited resources and diverse preferable alternatives are not all crucial issues.
Despite the urgency of the climate emergency, there is strangely little discussion about this evidence that nuclear power may be impeding progress with options that clearly work better.
If a persuasive explanation is sought for this persistent intensity of UK government support for nuclear power, then the real picture seems clear behind the distractions. Official UK defence documentation, many unanswered national and international media reports, brief admissions to Parliament and explicit statements in other nuclear-armed countries all make it pretty clear that the reasons are actually more military than civilian.
So, it might be understood why deep-rooted nuclear interests are seeking to hide these inconvenient facts behind pretty pictures of the West Highlands. But why is the media so keen to help, squirrelling realities away from view behind tales of repentant environmentalists? Why is so much new noise building up behind nuclear power in formerly critical political parties, just when the case has grown weaker than ever?
Profound issues are raised here, not only concerning the cost and speed of climate action, but about the independence and professionalism of the UK media and the health of British democracy as a whole. Whichever opinion we each take on nuclear issues – and whatever the undoubted uncertainties and ambiguities – we should all care very deeply about this.