Gas or nuclear?

As the UK negotiates for new nuclear power and ever more gas is discovered, we can't avoid the unpalatable question of which is least bad for the environment

The Treasury has been wrestling with Electricite de France over the price that a future nuclear plant at Hinkley Point will be able to charge between 2023 - when it might start producing - and 2050 - when it would apparently shut down. EDF says it has to be at least £100/MWh to justify the risks. The Treasury says it won't budge from £80/MWh. Current wholesale power prices are around £45/MWh. In a show of negotiating muscle, EDF has been laying off construction workers from the North Somerset site - it is serious about calling it a day.

A view of Hinkley Point

Hinkley point, Somerset. The old, decommissioned nuclear power station is the boxy, cathedral-like object at the end of point

Should we hope the negotiations succeed?

First, we'd better see what is the general context for energy and environment that makes nuclear power a runner at all. By the time we've sorted out a better way to organise ourselves, our energy systems should be green, sustainable, low risk, small scale (so that they are consistent with localist self-government) and low cost. Almost everything that nuclear is not - it's dangerous, expensive, linked to weapon-making and is built on a huge scale.

The trouble is that the energy system that we all want to see is going to require momentous changes in the way we live, in what we want from life and in technology. And even then, if we can't quite live simply enough, or technology doesn't give us enough of a helping hand, we might not get it all. There's lots of painful change on that road. The one thing that we know that every society on earth today avoids as long as it can. So a great leap forward to the best energy system we're just not going to see right now.

So do we say a curse on all their houses and keep dreaming of the best? Or do we try to distinguish what choices today might make the path to the best more likely?

I'm with the second program, and the choice is between a massive increase in gas generation or a massive increase in nuclear capacity. The reason for the increase is that there is lots of old plant coming off production - especially lots of old nuclear due to be decommissioned - and we won't meet our carbon cut targets if we keep our big coal fired power stations working. The gas would come from Norway, Russia, Algeria, the declining North Sea and maybe - if the hype and the planning permissions come through - from fracked gas in Lancashire, Suffolk and the Mendips, just next to Hinkley point. I'd love the choice to be different. My own favourite large-scale renewable option is from solar thermal concentrators in North Africa. But this is part of the ideal system. It's not going to happen for a long time, if only because of an understandable reluctance to increase our dependence on the region.

Some environmentalists try to make the choice easier than it is by claiming that, over the entire cycle of nuclear power, it is not in fact very good at limiting greenhouse gas emmissions. Once you've taken into account the uranium mines, the tonnes of concrete, the decommissioning and all the carbon that these processes require, the claim is that nuclear's claim to help with climate change disappears.

But this seems to be wrong. I took the table below from a pretty comprehensive survey of the lifecycle carbon dioxide costs of nuclear. Although nuclear is the most CO2 intensive of the non-fossil options, it is still less carbon intensive by a whopping factor of 7, all told, compared to natural gas, which is the best of the fossil options. The trouble with the options greener than nuclear in the table is the total capacity that they offer for energy production. As David Mackay chronicles at great length: nothing even close to current lifestyles can be supported by renewables in the UK.

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So nuclear can't be excluded on the grounds that it doesn't even help where it's meant to. It does.

While the Treasury was playing poker with EDF and on the anniversary of Fukushima, Japanese engineers announced that they had extraced methane from deep ocean ice. And they think that it might be a commercially viable thing for them to keep doing. We'd only just got used to the idea that shale gas had blown apart the whole peak-fossil theory - with its comforting thought that we'd have to radically transform our way of life, whether we liked it or not. Now we have to get used to the idea that there is even more fossil resource than available through fracking. 

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If we take the gas option, it looks as if we'll be able to go on and on pumping CO2 into an ever-warming atmosphere. Or at least - we won't get stopped by the simple and unarguable expedient of scarcity from doing so. The idea that shale has offered us a precious 30-year window during which we can really work to sort out our lifestyles and technology for a truly sustainable future just doesn't ring true: there's too much fossil fuel energy out there for that.

So here's the choice: go nuclear, have an impact on greenhouse gases right now, in the knowledge of all the dangers of the technology; or go fracking, with the near certainty that the gas will keep flowing and burning well beyond any safe level. I don't think we can really choose not to choose. And scarcity won't choose for us.

About the author

Tony Curzon Price was Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy from 2007 to 2012, where he is now contributing editor and technical director. He blogs at tony.curzon.com