Thursday 7 April 2022

Words, not action


For as long as most of us can remember – at least the last 60 years or so – nuclear fusion reactors have been the great promise for the future, and they’ve always been just 20-30 years in the future. Based on experience to date, and the problems still to be overcome, I will confidently predict that, 20-30 years from now, operating fusion reactors will still be just 20-30 years away. Only in the land of make-believe (otherwise known as Global Britain) would local authorities be putting time and effort into bidding to host a power plant which we don’t yet know how to build and which is unlikely to be built for at least half a century. In the meantime, the only type of nuclear power generation which we do know how to build and operate is the fission reactor, and any realistic talk of expanding nuclear power production is inevitably going to be based on that technology. And whilst there has long been talk of alternatives to uranium and plutonium (such as thorium), switching to a different technology would itself add time and cost to the development of the first power stations.

When nuclear energy generation started in the 1950s, the promise was that the electricity would be ‘too cheap to meter’, a forecast which has been proved spectacularly wrong. As things stand, I don’t believe that there is a single nuclear power project, anywhere in the world, which is not both much-delayed and running hopelessly over budget; pinning the hopes for future energy generation on this technology looks like a triumph of hope over experience and reality (which is at least, I suppose, a good match for the PM’s natural temperament). To add to the uncertainty, the UK government seems to be pinning its hopes on building a new type of reactor, or Small Modular Reactors as they are known. Whilst it would be unfair to refer to this as an entirely untested technology, it is nevertheless true that there is only one such reactor actually operating in the world today. And – ooh, look, it’s Russian. I’m sure that they’ll be willing to share their experience to help us free ourselves of dependence on Russian fossil fuels. They’ll probably see it as an opportunity to sell us their uranium instead. Even with the best will in the world, and a great deal of luck, the idea that these power plants will be rolling off a production line somewhere within the next few years is credible only to those who believe in unicorns and the benefits of Brexit. Which brings us, of course, to the current UK government. Today’s announcement of what it refers to as an ‘energy strategy’ (a title chosen, presumably, because it is neither a workable strategy and nor will it generate much electricity anytime soon) talks of there being 6 or 7 new power stations operating by 2050 – by the time the sunlight hits those uplands, it will have been filtered through so many sky-borne pies as to leave us in almost total darkness.

Even if the timescales were remotely achievable, and even if the unsolved problems of dealing with the radioactive waste could be solved (I assume that Ynys Môn council will be volunteering to host at least its share of the waste for a few thousand years in the meantime, given its enthusiasm for the technology), the proposals put forward today would still be, at the very best, a long-term solution to an immediate problem. And a very costly solution at that. It’s a huge missed opportunity; there are plenty of other quick and effective things which the UK and Europe could and should do to bring to an immediate end the dependence on Russian fossil fuels, including more energy-saving measures.

There are a number of possible reasons for the failure to act now. One of them is the attempt to minimise the pain felt domestically; but all of the so-called ‘crippling’ sanctions on Russia will have little impact whilst European countries continue to pay Russia billions for oil and gas. Trying to stop the war ‘painlessly’ is a recipe for the continuation of the slaughter. Another is the continued insistence on competition rather than collaboration as a guiding principle. Germany drags its feet over cancelling gas contracts, the UK has been slow to impose penalties which would impact its financial sector; both are looking after their own interests rather than working together. Sharing available resources – and the pain involved in a reduction in availability – would be much more effective.

But I can’t help but wonder whether there isn’t another, more Johnsonian, element to the publication of today’s ‘strategy’. His whole career is littered with the remnants of grand and expensive plans, announced to a great fanfare, which solve nothing in the short term but can be talked up incessantly for a year or two before being quietly abandoned before they start to cost serious money. Being seen to ‘act’ (i.e. talk) now is a way of doing nothing in the end. It’s his whole modus operandi – why would he change now?

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