The title of the Government’s energy White Paper is “Powering Our Net Zero Future”. It addresses the need to staunch our emissions of carbon dioxide in view of the advancing crisis of climate change. It proposes that, by 2050, we should double our generating capacity for electricity, while reducing our overall energy consumption to two-thirds of its present level. This is a gross underestimate of our requirements for electricity and power.
According to a widely accepted analysis, the electrification of transport would require a 75% increase in generating capacity. The decarbonisation of the economy will create numerous additional demands, some of which will be mentioned later. The only source that could meet such demands is nuclear power. Therefore, we should embark without delay on the necessary infrastructure projects to create this supply and exploit it.
Radical regression and a nuclear energy revival
An alternative opinion has been offered by the FIRES report, which is the work of a group of academic engineers. FIRES is an acronym that stands for “Future Industrial Resource Efficiency Strategy”. The report argues that we have run out of time. It proposes that the only way we can hope to meet the 2050 target of net zero emissions is by a radical regression, which would entail abandoning much of the technology that accompanies our present state of affluence.
According to that report, we would have to immobilise ourselves by forgoing our present means of transport, including automobiles and aircraft. International shipping would also need to be much reduced. Building construction involving steel and concrete would need to be severely curtailed, and we should cease to eat red meats. Such a curtailment of economic activity involving a further abandonment of manufacturing would lead to mass unemployment and to the immiseration of much of our working population. It is an appalling prospect to contemplate.
As evidence of the lack of time, the report talks of the 30-year period covering the time from the inception of a new technology to its realisation in a fully operational system. One can point to the length of time it has taken to design and complete the third generation of nuclear plants, such as the European pressurised water reactors, or EPRs, at Olkiluoto in Finland, Flamanville in Normandy and Hinkley Point in Somerset.
However, there are convincing recent and historical counterexamples suggesting that such projects can be accomplished far more rapidly. In fact, an EPR reactor that is virtually identical to that at Hinkley Point has been constructed at Taishan in Guangdong province in China. Work began in 2008 and, in spite of numerous reported setbacks, it began full operation in 2018.
One might also consider the post-war experience in Britain in establishing our civil nuclear industry, which, at the time, embodied a wholly new technology. Britain’s first nuclear power station at Calder Hall in Cumbria was officially opened by the Queen in October 1956. The construction began in 1953; and its design work could not have begun much before 1952, when Churchill called for the construction of the plant. There should be ample time between now and 2050 to revive our nuclear industry.
Cutting industrial emissions
We should now consider some of the uses of the enlarged supply of electricity, which would also be required for domestic heating and to power numerous industrial processes. Steel, which is currently manufactured in coal-fired blast furnaces, could be made in electric arc furnaces fed by both iron ores and scrap metals. Hydrogen and ammonia, which would be among the predominant vectors of energy, should be produced by the high-temperature electrolysis of water, the heat and electricity for which should be provided by nuclear reactors.
Provided that the hydrocarbon fuels are created in a manner that does not add to the burden of atmospheric carbon dioxide, there should be no need to forgo the use of either the internal combustion engine or of jet engines. The technology for the direct air capture of carbon dioxide, which is energy intensive, already exists. It could be deployed on a large scale to provide the carbon component of the fuels.
Portland cement, which is used in concrete, has become a major element in modern building construction. Its manufacture emits large quantities of carbon dioxide, and its use should be greatly reduced. However, a reversion to the use of lime mortar in brickwork could be mandated, since the setting of the mortar reabsorbs the carbon dioxide that has been emitted in the reduction of the calcium carbonate limestone to quicklime. Bricks that are now fused inseparably by a sand and cement bond could be reused extensively, as they are in much of present-day domestic building.
Is nuclear power the most viable option?
The present Government appears to favour renewable sources of power for generating electricity. The large electricity companies have shown themselves to be willing and able to invest in wind-generated electricity; and the cost of such electricity has fallen markedly over time. The construction of a large nuclear power station takes years; and it entails a large capital expenditure. The price of nuclear electricity bears the cost of the heavy capital charges. A glib comparison of costs seems strongly to disfavour nuclear power.
A closer examination of the economic circumstances leads to a different conclusion. It is doubtful whether it is appropriate to assess the capital cost of a nuclear power station on the basis of a commercial rate of interest, which has been the practice of the Government. A commercial rate of interest can also be seen as a rate of discount that greatly diminishes the value of future benefits in comparison with present benefits. Once it is in operation, a nuclear power station will last for many years. If we are looking towards a future without carbon dioxide emissions, then it makes no sense to discount the future benefits of an emissions-free source of power in this manner.
There is another compelling reason to question the validity of the glib cost comparison of wind power and nuclear power. Wind power is inherently intermittent. There are periods when the wind does not blow and when the power is not available. Then, something else must take its place. Hitherto, fossil fuels had been relied upon to generate electricity to overcome the deficit. Of late in the UK, the predominant fuel has been gas. Its availability is rapidly diminishing and its use is incompatible with the objective of staunching the emissions of carbon dioxide.
In the absence of a reliable base load of electricity generated by nuclear power, and on the assumption that fossil fuels must be relinquished, there will be a need for a massive storage of energy to accommodate intermittent renewable power. There is no consensus on how this could be achieved.
The cost of establishing and maintaining such a storage capacity, whatever form it takes, is a capital cost that should be attributed to renewable power. When that is done, the cost comparisons are likely to favour nuclear power. Thus, we should attribute to renewable sources of power not only the costs of the electricity that they generate, but also the costs of the electricity that they fail to generate.
The implications of importing energy and goods
One way of mitigating the effects of an intermittent power supply would be to import electricity from abroad via interconnectors, but some regard must be paid to how it is generated. If this electricity were generated using fossil fuels, then importing it would defeat the objective of reducing emissions. If the imported electricity were generated by renewable means, then the likelihood is that it would be subject to the same dearth as the domestic supply. The meteorological conditions that affect the wind are liable to prevail over a wide geographical area, including the places where the electricity has originated. In times of a widespread dearth, the electricity is liable to be expensive.
Over the past quarter of a century, Britain appears to have achieved a remarkable reduction in its emissions of carbon dioxide. Some of this reduction has been achieved by replacing coal-fired power stations with gas-fired stations, but these must be abandoned in seeking further reductions. The reduction in emissions is also a consequence of the de-industrialisation of Britain. The goods and foodstuff that were once produced in Britain have been replaced by imports from abroad. The consequent reduction in emissions has been illusory to the extent that these imports have been produced in a carbon-intensive manner.
In order to make significant further contributions to the reduction of emissions, Britain needs to pursue an industrial revolution in which goods and foodstuffs are produced domestically according to green precepts. To achieve this will require energy, imagination and government initiatives. At present, all three of these ingredients are in short supply.
HM Government, (2020). Energy White paper: Powering our Net Zero Future.
UK FIRES, (2019). Absolute Zero: Delivering the UK’s Climate Change Commitment with Incremental Changes to Today’s Technology https://ukfires.org.