Sarah Ingham is author of The Military Covenant: its impact on civil-military relations in Britain.
“Atomkraft? Nein Danke!” Nuclear Power? No Thanks!
The slogan of the German anti-nuclear movement since the 1970s has finally been heeded. By the end of next year, the country’s last remaining nuclear power stations will be shut down, a process that has been underway for the past decade.
The rejection of nuclear by Europe’s mightiest industrial economy will have been welcomed by many on this side of the North Sea. Among those keen to say their own nein danke to nuclear are Greenpeace, the SNP and the Green Party. The Liberal Democrats, unsurprisingly, witter on about wind, but their website – like their 2019 manifesto – ducks the nuclear issue.
With Atomkraft abolished, what will be powering Germany in the future? Energy is needed to make all those high-performance cars. And with Porsche, Audi, BMW and Mercedes all recently developing electric models, what will be fuelling them along the autobahns? It turns out that, for the time being at least, it’s partly coal. The black stuff, along with other fossil fuels, are generating much of the country’s electricity.
At 10am Berlin-time on Monday, when the eco-ninnies of Insulate Britain were first bringing parts of the M25 to a halt, just over 69,000 megawatt hours of power was cooking in Germany; roughly 25,000 from coal and 8,000 from nuclear. The Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Industry points out that the country is currently transforming its energy system to make it climate friendly and sustainable, but that will take time. Meanwhile, ‘energy from conventional sources is helping us “keep the lights on”’.
A day after the first M25 protest, the initial findings of a Bath University global study on young people and climate change was published. It revealed high levels of anxiety about the issue among the 10,000 respondents aged 16-25, with nearly 60 per cent reporting they felt worried or extremely worried, to the extent that four in ten were hesitant about having children. Even the most hardened climate change sceptic – “it’s called weather” – will surely be concerned about the levels of psychological distress among the world’s youth which have led to more than half of those questioned (56 per cent) believing humanity is doomed. Elles/Ils sont Greta.
As the Government coats itself in greenwash ahead of COP26, it probably wants to play down last week’s return of Old King Coal to Britain’s energy generation. A, er, perfect storm of heatwave and no wind jeopardised the UK’s power supplies. The National Grid turned to the West Burton A coal-fired station to make up the shortfall. The plant is due to close in 12 months. In June, the government announced that from October 2024, coal will no longer be used to generate electricity, with the pre-reshuffle Energy and Climate Change Minister, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, stating that coal with be consigned to the history books and ‘the UK’s net zero future will be powered by renewables.’
With the continual trumpeting of 67 coal-free days in 2020 (which coincided with lockdown BTW), Pithead Revisited seems unlikely in Britain. However, the current faith in renewables rapidly and consistently to deliver our energy needs is idealistic not realistic. The only way the circle of carbon net zero can be squared with reliable, carbon-free and cheap supply is by embracing home-grown nuclear power.
On Wednesday, perhaps around the time the second M25 protest resulted in a serious crash in Surrey, a large fire near Ashford in Kent damaged the IFA1 interconnector, the main cabling bringing electricity from France. Supplies are expected to be reduced until at least March. This will put further pressure on prices, just as householders have been warned to expect increases on 1st October, following a rise in wholesale costs of energy of 50 per cent in the last six months.
For those prone to a meltdown at the prospect of nuclear power plants on British soil, just how do they think much of the electricity imported across La Manche is generated?
Accounting for about one fifth of Britain’s power supply in 2018, down from a quarter in the mid-1990s, nuclear in needed. In June, Dungeness B closed, leaving seven nuclear power plants; five more are expected to be shut in the next few years. Due to open in June 2026, the Hinkley Point C reactor is expected to power some six million homes.
HS2, with its £98 billion official budget, is a politically toxic vanity project, not Critical National Infrastructure. The Government must start understanding the term ‘critical’ and get behind nuclear. Last year’s Energy White Paper was full of the Green Industrial Revolution but gave a somewhat flaccid commitment to ‘aiming to bring at least one large-scale nuclear project to Final Investment Decision by the end of this Parliament, subject to clear value for money and all relevant approvals.’
Backing nuclear also means selling it to a public spooked by its association with weaponry and fearful of accidents. Given the Eastern bloc’s demonstration of technological prowess in the mid-1980s was the Lada and the Trabant, it’s surprising there weren’t more Chernobyls among its power stations. And the Fukushima plant held up pretty well in 2011, considering it was struck by the fourth largest earthquake ever recorded. The generally tsunami-free UK has been enjoying safe nuclear power since 1956.
Back in 2007, when four per cent of the UK’s electricity came from renewables, one survey found that ‘respondents appeared to be largely unaware that nuclear power is a low greenhouse gas emission technology’. The public still seems largely unaware.
Keeping the lights on, as well as the smartphones charged to access Deliveroo, TikTok and even the NHS app, is imperative. This isn’t the 1970s, when voters put up with the Three-Day Week power cuts in the “mustn’t grumble” spirit of the Blitz – which many of them would have experienced. Interruptions to the power supply today would mean that the prospects of Conservatives remaining in government are roughly net zero.
Ja, bitte to nuclear.