Gerry Wolff from Energy Fair on why the subsidies received by the nuclear power industry mask its true cost to society.
Subsidies for nuclear power
Notwithstanding the misleadingly low figures for the cost of nuclear power that are put out by the nuclear industry and repeated, apparently without critical examination, by other organisations, it is now well established that nuclear power is one of the most expensive ways of generating electricity.
Bearing in mind that there are now several reports showing how to decarbonise the world’s economies without nuclear power, that nuclear power is far from being zero carbon, that there are more than enough alternatives, and that those alternatives are quicker to build and have none of the headaches of nuclear power, there is absolutely no case for new nuclear power plants anywhere in the world. In terms of the fight against climate change, money spent on nuclear power is a serious mis-allocation of resources. The alternatives are quicker and cheaper.
The false claim that nuclear power is cheap can only be believed if research costs and capital costs are written off and if the several subsidies for nuclear power are ignored. Those subsidies are described in some detail in the Nuclear Subsidies report (PDF, 189 KB) from the Energy Fair group. The main ones are:
- Limitations on liabilities: the operators of nuclear plants are only required to pay a small fraction of the full cost of insuring against a Chernobyl-style accident or worse.
- Underwriting of commercial risks: for political reasons, the operators of nuclear plants cannot be allowed to fail. In effect, national governments provide free underwriting of the commercial risks of operating nuclear plants.
- Protection against terrorist attacks: at least some of the cost of protection against terrorist attacks is born by the Government and the protection can only ever be partial.
- Short-to-medium-term cost of disposing of nuclear waste: the operators of nuclear plants are paying much less than the full cost of disposing of nuclear waste, and the Government takes on the risk of cost over-runs.
- Long-term cost of disposing of nuclear waste: much of the long-term cost of disposing of nuclear waste will be paid by people who are not yet born.
- Underwriting the cost of decommissioning nuclear plants: the Government bears the risk of cost over-runs in decommissioning nuclear plants. In this area, cost over-runs are normal and, as we are seeing now, the cost to the taxpayer can be enormous.
- Institutional support for nuclear power: the Government is providing various forms of institutional support for the nuclear industry: the National Nuclear Laboratory, a "nuclear academy" in West Cumbria, the Government's Office for Nuclear Development, a newly-established Nuclear Institute, and so on.
Fortunately, the need for cuts in public spending has begun to shift the spotlight on to these unjustified subsidies for nuclear power. The Government has said that any new nuclear power stations that may be built in the UK should "receive no public subsidy" ("The Coalition: our programme for government", page 17). If the "no subsidy" commitment means what it says, then none of the subsidies mentioned above should be available for any new nuclear power stations in the UK. Without those subsidies, or even a subset of them, it is unlikely that any new nuclear power stations would be built (even with a floor on the price of CO2 emissions).
More generally, subsidies for nuclear power are a clear breach of the principle of fair competition which invite legal action. By contrast with the new green technologies which do need support until they are fully established, nuclear power has received large amounts of support over many years, it is a mature technology, and it should be commercially viable without subsidies.
Gerry Wolff's career has been mainly in research and teaching in computing and cognitive science. He has had long-standing interests in environmental protection, focussing in recent years on what can be done to combat the threat of climate change. In 2001 he and his wife Marianne Jones set up a website about what ordinary householders can do to reduce their own direct emissions of CO2. This led on to an interest in clean energy and the huge potential of desert regions for the development of solar energy and wind power. Since 2006, he has been Coordinator of Desertec-UK, working to raise awareness of the Desertec concept in the UK and beyond. He is also working with the Kyoto2 Support Group (K2S) to raise awareness of the "Kyoto2" proposals for controlling emissions of greenhouse gases, and with the Energy Fair group to reduce subsidies for nuclear power.