Monday, August 27, 2007

How The Silly Season Works, Apparently…

Loathe as I am to “work” on a bank holiday, I feel duty bound to respond to today’s Western Mail advert against nuclear power, as noted by Peter Black. I’m required to call it that, because on closer reading we discover that this “news story” is actually just a press release from the Welsh Anti-Nuclear Alliance that the Mail has printed essentially verbatim because it’s that time of year. Nevertheless, I have to give credit to WANA for filling the gap in the silly season market and for providing such a thorough example of where the anti-nuclear argument is at the moment.

The first strand of attack is the economic one, but as ever, nothing so gauche as an actual cost analysis is included. Now I can understand why this is the case; I mean, if you were advocating massive increases in wind power, you wouldn’t want to admit that actually, the infrastructure costs of connecting the whole Isle of Lewis to the National Grid are so massive that they make your final costs look hideous. Mentioning the actual numbers takes away from the gospel assertion that wind is cheap and nuclear isn’t, so we don’t do that.

Instead, a variety of water-muddying titbits are thrown in, in the hope that they will reaffirm popular misconceptions. So here we open with nuclear requiring higher proportional capital investment than fossil fuels; this is true, but only because nuclear uses so little fuel that its proportional costs are weighted to the fixed end. WANA want you to assume that, because the fixed costs are proportionally high, no company will be willing to make the investment, but they offer no sort of figures to prove that it is so.

As a sub-plot to that, the British Energy bail-out is brought up again. While it may be nice for the campaigners to think that this is certified proof of uneconomic performance by nuclear specifically, a look at the history is instructive. Essentially, when British Energy was privatised, the government should have made a cash contribution to the new company to reflect the liabilities incurred up to that point. This did not sit with the ideologues concept of privatisation leading to money flowing into the treasury, so the eventual contribution was insufficient. When the British wholesale electricity market collapsed in 2002, BE ended up being worst hit purely because they’d been short-changed on the asset/liability ratio ten years earlier, as a result of which the government was required to step in to make good on its earlier failure. WANA may wish to blame “the nuclear industry” for being big and bad, but in reality they should blame the Major government for being grossly incompetent (so no change there then…)

The second strand is the process story. Now that the government has announced its ideas for “streamlining” the planning process, everyone wants to make out that the intent is to screw the public over. Far be it from me to defend the government, but the “streamlining” is largely a response to the Sizewell B experience, wherein the local planning inquiry was turned into CEGB vs. Greenpeace, FoE et al. and the whole nuclear industry was put on trial for ten years. The local planning inquiry should be about local issues, about whether site x is suitable for thing y; national strategy should be decided elsewhere and hopefully the new processes will deliver that.

By contrast, WANA make the bizarre claim that construction over-runs in the AGR programme were caused by the lack of public inquiry, a classic case of post hoc, ergo propter hoc. To add to the weirdness, in this case WANA do offer a number, claiming that the average over-run in the AGR programme was ten years. Given that I know full-well that the longest over-run was at Dungeness B, and that over-run, on one of the two reactors, was sixteen years, I am at a loss to see how they can compute that the average over-run across a fourteen reactor programme was as high as ten years.

Another angle the process story allows is the idea that new reactor designs are dangerously experimental and will not be properly scrutinised. For that argument, I’ll merely offer you links to the official sites of the AP1000, EPR and ESBWR (for details of the evolutionary nature of these designs) and note that reactors such as these are under construction in Finland and China and have received design certification in the USA. The man at WANA may think what he wants, but nations around the world are queuing up to disagree with him.

And then, to add to the joy, right at the end WANA dip into an argument that I’m sure will develop over the next few years. I have always said that the greatest test of a new nuclear programme will come when the Daily Mail discover that the first new plant is being built by Electricité de France, and it’s nice to see WANA subconsciously adding fuel to the future xenophobia argument by mentioning the nationalities of the companies involved.

I have said before and will undoubtedly say again, our future energy policy must be holistic; leaving the debate to self-appointed experts and conducting it in a culture of unremitting hostility to anything said by the companies involved is no way to deal with the vast range of economic, environmental and security issues we face.

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