Thursday, September 22, 2005

If we don't want to depend on oil, we must go nuclear

If we don�t want to depend on oil, we must go nuclear - Sunday Times - Times Online

September 18, 2005

If we don’t want to depend on oil, we must go nuclear

Britain did not come to a standstill last week — despite the predictions of the doom-sayers and the ministerial faint hearts. This time the fuel tax protesters did not halt the supplies to petrol stations. Nor is there any sign that they can force the government to its knees as they did in 2000.
Sir Jonathan Porritt, who chairs the government’s Sustainable Development Commission, urged ministers not to give in to the protesters’ demands. He is right.

With oil flows disrupted by events in Iraq and the Gulf of Mexico, and with consumption in India and China rising sharply, it would be crazy to cut fuel tax. That would encourage people to use more of a product that is in short supply.

However, Gordon Brown, the chancellor, does not sound much saner than the protesters. In a speech to the TUC he pleaded with Opec (the mainly Arab cartel of oil-producing countries) to increase production.

Understandably Brown is worried about oil prices. Two major airlines in the United States are filing for bankruptcy as a result of higher fuel costs. Back home the rises will reduce Britain’s rate of economic growth and so tax revenues will fall below the forecasts on which his economic policy depends. The Bank of England predicts growth this year of 2%, where Brown had forecast 3% to 3.5%.

Opec will argue that the world is doing too little to reduce its dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Anyway, high prices give energy companies the incentive to develop those oil and gas deposits that are costly to produce. Many of these are in areas that are more politically stable than the Middle East, so exploiting them can improve our security of supply.

This period of energy angst should be grabbed by politicians in the United States as an opportunity to argue the patriotic case for higher taxes on fuel. Paying more for petrol would help to reduce American dependence on imports. European politicians should now be making the case for developing other sources of energy, such as nuclear power.

We should not be too concerned that Arab countries are getting rich at our expense. Were the money to trickle down through the population, it might help to reduce poverty and ignorance and that should make life harder for the political extremists.

High oil prices can be lived with and past experience shows that fundamentally sound economies are well able to adapt even to sharp price rises.

However, Brown is urging other countries to put things right because the government is too timid to implement a long-term energy policy of its own.

When environmental issues first became a global concern, Britain was well placed to limit its emissions of noxious gases into the atmosphere. The demise of the British coal industry during Arthur Scargill’s leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers did the trick since it led to much greater usage of natural gas in power stations.

Now it is more difficult for Britain to meet its targets. In response to the 2000 protests the chancellor gave up the so-called “escalator” which sharply increased the tax on road fuels in every budget. That surrender dealt a mighty blow to the government’s energy strategy, which had been designed to force people onto public transport and to stimulate the development of new energy sources. Britain’s greenhouse gas emissions are now rising — up by more than 2% since 2002.

The nuclear power plants that are operating today produce about a fifth of Britain’s electricity and do so without contributing to global warming. This country’s emissions of greenhouse gases are between 7m and 14m tons less than they might be because of these power stations. Yet all but one of our nuclear plants will have closed by 2023. If the government does not replace them with new nuclear stations, it will face a huge problem and its green ambitions will look incredible.

During the general election campaign it was hinted that Tony Blair would soon bite the bullet and order another generation of nuclear plants to be built. If the government is serious about global warming the decision takes itself. Blair now appears to be in no hurry. The official line is that he will make a yes or no decision during this parliament.

One policy which is clear is that renewable sources are subsidised. Companies that produce electricity from wind get a so-called “renewable obligation certificate” for each megawatt-hour that they generate. The power distribution companies are obliged to pay a market price for those certificates (as well as for the power itself) or be fined for failing to use renewable energy.

According to the Commons public accounts committee, the total cost of subsidies paid to renewable energy suppliers could reach £5 billion by 2010, with additional costs for the power lines needed to bring the juice from the mountains and seas. We pay for it through our electricity bills.
What is more, the committee believes that a third of the subsidy goes to companies that do not need it.

I confess that I loathe wind turbines. It dismays me that we can despoil vast areas of great natural beauty in the name of saving the planet. Looking at a magnificent hillside or cliff edge covered in these huge towers is, to paraphrase the Prince of Wales’s famous remark on modern architecture, like seeing a finely shaped chin defaced by a growth.

Some people claim to like the wind machines. Roy Hattersley, former deputy leader of the Labour party, says that passing the wind farm near Tintagel, in Cornwall, makes him think of Camelot. The noise reminds him of “the gentle hum of swarming bees”. I would compare it with the whine of an aircraft engine, obliterating the sounds of nature.

Positioned to catch the breeze on high ridges, the turbines scythe down migrating birds. On a recent visit to Spain, where turbines have spread like a vicious pox, I learnt that this month 47 vultures headed for the Strait of Gibraltar had been felled by turbine blades.

Wind turbines are not efficient. In Germany during 2003 they were used to only a sixth of their capacity, largely because the wind is unpredictable. Fossil stations are kept turning over and emitting greenhouse gases in case they are needed to make up the shortfall, yet if the turbines produce too much electricity the excess cannot be stored.

The turbines are to the countryside in our times what the tower blocks were to the cities in the 1960s. I look forward to the parties when, 40 years from now, we dynamite them.

I would hesitate to make an economic case for nuclear power. Today it seems that nuclear could generate electricity more cheaply than wind turbines, but we know little about the capital costs because it is a while since we built nuclear stations. Still, past experience is far from encouraging.

I realise, too, that nuclear power raises fears that wind turbines do not; unless you are Don Quixote. However, as with other technologies, as nuclear power evolves we get better at building in safety features. The problem of waste is a challenge but it looks as though it can be handled.

The point about nuclear power is that it does the job. Using remotely located stations that would have much less visual impact than turbines, we could replace all fossil-fuelled stations (if global warming matters that much).

One day we could use electricity from nuclear stations to charge our battery-powered cars or to produce hydrogen on which our vehicles could run, all without producing greenhouse gases. Even if we cover every last hillock of our green and pleasant land with wind turbines we will not get close to that.

Meanwhile, apart from desecrating the countryside, wind turbines are diverting resources that could be put to better use. They provide a frivolous distraction for a government that should be implementing a serious energy policy.

It is good news that the fuel tax protesters failed to halt the country last week. They should be heeded only inasmuch as they highlight a real problem: that Britain is over-dependent on oil. The traffic is still moving but the government’s energy policy is at a standstill.


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