Select Committee on Environmental Audit Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Ian Critchley


  1.  The nuclear industry is presently in the process of being dismantled, and whilst it will be some time before the more recently constructed plants become due for decommissioning, it is only a matter of time before its contribution to the net national demand for electricity becomes marginal.

  The industry is not attractive to young people and recruiting quality staff has almost become impossible, as young people see no future in nuclear power. Nuclear dismantling is a new business, and it is very different from nuclear power plant operation.

  The only way that operational capability can be retained is to attract young people who see nuclear plant operation as a potential career, and this can only happen if there is a commitment to retaining nuclear power for the long term. If this does not happen, a return to nuclear in the future will be very much more difficult simply as there will not be the right mix of skills of knowledge to support an industry on any meaningful scale.

  The industry has done itself no favours over the last generation. The public remains suspicious and ignorant due to the misleading "facts" peddled by self-appointed nuclear "experts" and the so-called green lobby who also have to resort to lying and distorting the truth to make their case against nuclear power.

  The culture within the industry has however changed markedly over the last 10 years, and safety has become paramount alongside conservative decision making over production and environmental protection. Whilst there is some way to go before British plants are operated on a level with the world's best in terms of operational excellence, the movement is in the right direction and continues.

  If we were able to go back to the early days of the industry knowing what is known now with the values that we now have, nuclear power would be perceived very differently and we could have a very safe means of generating electricity with almost no discharges to the environment, relatively small quantities of waste and a safety record that would be the envy of every other industry. The industry didn't live up to its promises for a variety of reasons that we are now able to learn from.

  There is an opportunity to create a new nuclear industry that benefits from the learning of the last 50 years and could become such an ideal, but only if the opportunity is taken before the window closes and capability is lost forever. The knowledge needed to make the ideal a reality resides in the experience of people who in a few years will be gone without being replaced.

  This would point to making a commitment to nuclear power generation now so that a career in nuclear returns to the minds of our next generation of engineers and scientists. The alternative is to lose the capability.

  2.  The reality of this of course is that it will be an expensive investment over the lifetime of several governments that the country cannot back out of once it has started. The political will and courage to make such a long-sighted investment will always be a challenge for politicians.

  A nuclear industry can never be completely detached from government control for a number of good reasons—financial, waste disposal and security to mention but a few of the most obvious. Private industry and competition can do a lot to make the industry financially self-sustaining, but it cannot be allowed to become a monster that is controlled by profit. Government control must therefore be retained, but there is already a model in existence in the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority that could easily be extended.

  This would point to committing to nuclear power generation that remains under government control with a similar model to the NDA.

  3.  The alternatives to nuclear power for large-scale generation without CO2 emissions do not provide the means to avoid nuclear power. Wind, tidal and solar power all have their own technical and reliability problems, but the main one is simply one of scale. They do of course have their place in a healthy diversity of generation options. The New Electricity Trading Arrangements (NETA) do not provide for a sensible electricity supply strategy, as it does not recognise the obvious difference between base load and non-base load. They favour plants that can be switched on and off with no notice, which is simply not how nuclear plants can be operated.

  This points to the need for a healthy diversity in a national electricity generating strategy that recognises the unique aspects of nuclear power plants. Such a strategy must treat base load differently from non-base load in trading arrangements, and accept that safe and reliable nuclear generation comes at a cost in return for the benefits of pollution avoidance and security of supply.

  4.  Nuclear waste management requires a pragmatic single national approach instead of the dithering that besets it at present. There are not many options, it is high time one was chosen. Deferring a decision on a national repository for our grandchildren to see through is nonsense. Reprocessing spent fuel should remain an option only if there is a very clear benefit in sustaining future fuel supplies, which at present it does not. Reprocessing has hitherto created additional waste and cost for no benefit. This however does not preclude the option of long-term safe storage of spent fuel that retains the option to retrieve it in the future for reuse should future generations wish to do so, but requires that appropriate storage is invested in and its ongoing costs accepted.

  Other solid waste should be minimised through design and good practice, and as far as possible should by recycled within the industry. This needs to be the subject of a unified industry that is geared up to recycle its own waste. Where solid waste has to be disposed of, a consistent industry-wide approach should provide for it. This essentially means either a single nuclear waste storage facility, or local on-site facilities at each location. In either case, the waste should be conditioned and made ready for permanent passive disposal prior to storage. As with spent fuel, the waste should be retrievable in case it becomes necessary to maintain its passive storage condition.

  This points to the need to set a new industry up with a collective solid waste management strategy and disposal regime that opts for immediate final disposal with retrievability. Spent fuel should be retrievable to retain the option to reuse it in the future.


A.   Generation gap

  1.  I defer to the knowledge of others who have studied the subject for the assessed size of the gap. It is important to note however that there is a gap, and to some extent its size is of little relevance in deciding whether or not commit to new nuclear build. There is a risk that the existing plants will have to be taken out of service sooner that planned for technical reasons to do with graphite erosion that cannot be repaired. This will have the effect of creating the gap sooner in a climate of increasing electricity demand and a growing requirement for supply reliability to support a computerised society.

B.   Financial costs and investment

  2.  I refer to my comments above. The country needs a secure base load generating capability that comes with reliability and minimal environmental impact, over which government should retain strategic control. This is worth paying a premium for, and should be topped off with a range of responsive plant operated by private industry that includes a significant proportion of renewables operating in a competitive environment.

  Government should own the provision of base load, and private industry should be free to supply non-base load. This puts the relatively small (compared with nuclear investment) investment decisions and risks associated with renewables with the private sector.

  The costs of new nuclear build and operation if allowed to stand alone from the existing industry should be reasonably accurate. Past experience shows us that the cost of waste management and decommissioning is very difficult to assess, as are the unforeseen costs that arise from uncertainties. New plants are designed for decommissioning and the technical aspects of their disposal are more predictable. The legacy we have at present is the product of a different era and no planning for plant lifecycles. Decommissioning of any new facilities should be addressed in a national radioactive waste strategy that must come with a new-build programme. This would bring far more predictability into the costs of new build over its lifecycle.

  Hidden costs are invariably associated with waste management, which again if planned in as part of the investment should be reasonably predictable. The cost of security is higher than at any time in the past but is not a significant factor as plants can be designed for security, and a security force is necessary for any industrial site.

  Other hidden costs have historically arisen from regulatory demand for safety enhancements that increase an already generous safety margin and come at grossly disproportionate cost for the negligible or no benefit delivered. The industry and regulators understand this better now and work together more effectively to avoid such instances.

  I do not believe that renewables can deliver reliable large-scale generation. Common sense tells us that such units are subject to the unpredictability of the weather, climate change and extreme operating conditions, which render their operating capability a hostage to fortune. The units cannot be built on a large scale other than number with the obvious visual impact that nobody enjoys. The maintenance burden and poor load factor simply makes renewables a non-runner for a reliable supply.

  Micro-generation should be encouraged on the obvious basis that every little helps. Where energy can be recovered without excessive cost, it should be encouraged as this puts the cost with the immediate user with minimal additional environmental impact in terms of fuel and waste. Solar water heating should also be considered as a contributor as it avoids electricity and other fossil fuel usage, and collectively would reduce electricity consumption by a significant amount if householders and business users could afford to install it.

  Micro-generation at isolated locations should be supported as self-sufficiency avoids the need to provide grid and mains connections at disproportionate cost, with minimal environmental and visual impact. Apart from solar panels and heat recovery systems, micro-generation in communities does not make economic or environmental sense where installations are obtrusive. Eg Encouraging 100 householders in a village each to erect a windmill is not sensible whereas encouraging a farmer on a remote hillside to erect a windmill would be.

  3.  Financial institutions simply do not have the knowledge to make investment decisions on nuclear build as there are to many uncertainties at present. Any financial institution that takes risk in nuclear investment in the present climate cannot really understand what it is taking on. The recent fortunes of British Energy amply show this, and the government had to come to the rescue twice.

  Whilst the provision of funding from private investors with the promise of reward should be sought, new nuclear build must remain the responsibility of the government and that is where the risk has to be taken. Most of the risk is driven by government through the waste strategy and regulation, and it is therefore within its own gift to manage such risk whereas the private sector cannot.

  Investment in other technologies is always going to be more attractive simply because such as CCGT is well understood and very simple to predict in terms of cost and risk. Without the incentive to do otherwise, profit will force investment into the easiest options without regard for what is best for the country.

C.   Strategic benefits

  4.  The main public good would be in the provision of a secure and reliable supply of electricity with minimal carbon emissions. If it were implemented properly, electricity would also be produced at a reasonable cost. Consideration of the benefits should also be weighed against the alternatives of not providing such an electricity supply and the costs incurred by unreliable supplies and ongoing avoidable air pollution. The short answer is that there is no real choice—it has to be provided.

  The investment involved in creating a "new" nuclear industry would be considerable and would probably take more than a generation to pay for itself. It would however be there in perpetuity.

  The affordability of this would largely be down to the level of investment that could be attracted and how quickly the plants could be in a position to start earning. A commitment to a "new industry" rather than bolting on new build to the back of the existing industry with its historic problems and uncertainties would make investment far more attractive, particularly if the government was to guarantee some reward without investors having to take a huge step of faith on risk from waste strategy and ever-changing regulatory impacts.

  Carbon emission reduction would be significantly enhanced if nuclear plants were provided with the intention of underpinning base load, simply as they would displace carbon-generating base load plants. Whether these plants would be taken out of service before the end of their lives would be down to their ongoing profitability where they have to compete in a smaller (non-base load) market.

  Nuclear facilities do not pose a threat from terrorism. They are difficult targets, they are guarded and their construction does not lend themselves to being damaged easily. New nuclear build would be at far less risk than the old facilities which are much more vulnerable, particularly at Sellafield. If a terrorist organisation wanted to further its cause through a serious nuclear incident it would need to resort to a large missile attack or possibly an attack with a very large aircraft packed with explosives, and the certainty of success would be higher at other targets than new power stations.

  There seems to be little to suggest that terrorist groups would choose to target a nuclear site mainly as the resources needed to have any real effect are difficult to obtain, the sites are in remote locations and contaminating a country that has a cross-section of people from their own belief system is rather self defeating. Terrorists go for the outrage factor of causing mayhem and suffering on easy targets, and they do not appear to be capable of mounting a numerically large-scale attack. An outrage on that scale would not draw support from within their own cultures.

  5.  I refer to my views above. Renewables, micro-generation and energy efficiency need to sit alongside a new nuclear industry as part of a diverse electricity generation system, but should be funded by private industry in their own (non base load) market. The Energy White Paper lacks this vision—new nuclear build has to be more than building new nuclear power stations, it has to be the launch of a new industry that is largely separate from the old one.

D.   Other issues

  6.  In considering carbon freedom, the construction of a nuclear power station is not vastly different to building any other power generating plant of the same capacity. The operation of a nuclear power station is a different matter depending on the design of the plant. The AP1000 reactors are water cooled and do not discharge CO2 coolant like the magnox and AGR reactors in service at present. The amounts of carbon emissions should be readily available from existing knowledge of the plants.

  The mining of uranium is no more or less carbon generating than the extraction of other fuels, but the energy yield for the volumes extracted are far beyond the calorific values of other fuels. I maintain my point that whilst renewable energy is desirable from a carbon freedom aspect, the practicality of constructing, maintaining and operating such plant to generate the equivalent amount of power is unachievable without disproportionate effects on society and the environment.

  7.  I have made my position on radioactive waste in the views expressed above. A waste management strategy in essential and must be intrinsic to any new build.

11 September 2005

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