Select Committee on Environmental Audit Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Professor Ian Fells CBE FREng FRSE

  Two urgent imperatives have emerged since the publication of the Energy White Paper in 2003. They are security of energy supply, particularly electricity: and environmental protection. The power cuts in the US, UK, Italy and Scandinavia in 2003 and the growing consensus that man is affecting the climate by burning ever-increasing amounts of fossil fuel and causing global warming by stimulating the Greenhouse effect, has given a "wake up" call to politicians. The two problems are interlinked and require a joint solution.

  1.  In the UK 77% of the electricity is generated by burning coal or gas which puts carbon dioxide, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere; coal is the major culprit as it puts 1Kg of CO2 into the atmosphere for each unit of electricity generated, the figure for gas is 0.5 Kg and for nuclear power, wind and hydro the figure is less than 10g/unit each (ETSU Lifecycle analysis 1999).

  2.  It is clear that if we are to reduce CO2 emissions we must switch out of fossil fuels and into renewable and nuclear power. Perversely, government policy has only taken on board half of this process and whilst it stimulates renewables, particularly wind power, with subsidy of one sort and another, to the tune of £1 billion per year (HoC Public Accounts Committee, 6th Report, September 2005), at the same time it is bent on reducing nuclear power output to zero. As nuclear provides around 22% of UK electricity at the moment, to replace it with renewable electricity will be an impossible task; the Public Accounts Committee suggest if all government incentives work we could just make10% renewable by 2010 but give a more cautious figure of 7.5%. To get to the "inspirational" target of 20% by 2020 is even more problematical. Currently wind provides 0.4% of electricity, and total renewables 4%, already slipping behind the target of 5% by 2005.

  3.  The UK's ageing nuclear stations are already being decommissioned; by 2010 nuclear's output will have fallen to 16% and by 2020 to 7%. To make matters worse the UK coal stations, which provide 35% of electricity, are also ageing and falling foul of new EU emissions regulations which come into force in 2008 and, by closure, could reduce supply by another 25% by 2020. We could be short of 40% of electricity supply by 2020.

  4.  Decisions have to be made now (yesterday really) if we are to ensure a secure supply of electricity through the coming years. Shortages could cut in quite soon. The easiest solution could be to replace the nuclear and coal stations with gas, but gas supplies will have to come from Russia, Qatar, Nigeria and points east. We will be in competition with China and Japan (also for oil) and the US, for sea-borne gas. The price has doubled in the past year and will continue to rise. We will find ourselves 80% dependent on imported gas for our electricity supply by 2020, with ominous implications for security of supply.

  5.  Much has been made of the supposed uneconomic cost of nuclear power. Separate studies by the Royal Academy of Engineering (2004) and the Paul Scheerer Institute in Switzerland, show nuclear power generating costs coming in on a par with gas and half the price of wind power. The contrast with wind is even more striking if the huge subsidy identified by the Public Accounts Committee, £5 billion for renewables up to 2010, is included.

  6.  Finland has just started building a new nuclear power station, Olkiluoto 3; it will be the most economic solution to Finland's future energy demand, it will also provide CO2 free electricity and strengthen their security of supply, making them independent of imports from Russia. Radioactive waste will be stored in a deep, geological repository which has been accepted as a satisfactory method of storing waste by the population at large. Some UK members of parliament have been to see the site. Lord Flowers in his 1976 report "Nuclear Power and the Environment" 6th RCEP report, said "There should be no commitment to a large programme of nuclear fission power until it had been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that a method exists to ensure the safe containment of long-lived, highly radioactive waste for the indefinite future". In Hansard of 12 January this year Lord Flowers is quoted ". . . safe disposal . . . namely underground storage . . . has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt in other countries, especially Finland." It is worth noting that the new designs of nuclear power stations, such as the Westinghouse AP1000, produce only one tenth the radioactive waste of current stations.

  7.  If the UK nuclear component is not rebuilt there is no chance that we will even approach the 60% reduction of CO2 target set by the PM for 2050 (see paper by Fells, Fells and Horlock, TCE July attached to this e-mail). A large slice of replacement supply will have to be provided by gas which emits CO2. A balanced electricity supply portfolio is required to give reduced CO2 and also security of supply, not one dominated by imported gas which is what a simplistic, market-led policy will deliver; something like a mix of 10% renewable (the current policy) but backed with percentages for the other fuels, 30% gas, 30% nuclear and 30% coal with carbon capture. The market could operate within this framework but it will need a defined government policy. The notion that renewable energy will come and save us all is a dangerous conceit but seductive for those predicated on a green, rather than a practical and effective agenda.

16 September 2005

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