Nuclear – a low-carbon, low-cost energy-secure future?

In the 3 May edition of the Church Times, Bishop Anthony Priddis wrote an article extolling thorium: “Thorium: it’s green, nuclear, safe” (pdf). I have just sent a Letter to the editor in response.

Sir, – I would like to question the assumptions underlying Anthony Priddis’ article on Thorium (Comment, 3 May). The Department of Energy and Climate Change outlines four scenarios for the energy mix in 2050. The ‘Higher renewables, more energy efficiency’ scenario shows that there does not need to be a nuclear future. And this is the cheapest option; the high-nuclear scenario is the most expensive.

DECC is aiming for a low-carbon, low-cost, energy-secure future.

If thorium is a low-carbon option, I would like to see the figures for the embodied energy and energy consumption over the whole lifecycle of the R&D, plant construction and decommissioning. I would also like to see the costs for the whole lifecycle (using unbiased discount rates), and the opportunity cost of not investing in cheaper alternatives.

As for UK energy security, Priddis’ article says that thorium is found in Australia, India, the United States, and Norway, and the technology is being developed in China, India, Norway and France. The UK company Centrica has abandoned nuclear, leaving those power stations currently planned to Electricité de France. EdF is in financial trouble, and trying to lock the government in to 40 years of guaranteed prices. Moreover, an electricity grid made up of few large-scale stations is vulnerable when one of those stations fails or requires maintenance.

Then the article gives an R&D lead-time of 10-15 years. Goodness knows how many years will then be needed for decision-making, planning, and negotiating contracts; then goodness knows how many more to build and commission the plant. Nuclear has a long history of delays.

Renewable energy is from the UK. The technologies are human-scale. They are available now, and because they are small-scale, they can be continually refined as they are installed. The UK is already involved in R&D and manufacture, and there is still an opportunity to invest in further capacity, combined with R&D in electricity storage and demand-side management aiming at creating resilient and more local grids.

But the most important component of future electricity supply is ‘negawatts’, reducing consumption through energy efficiency and modifying lifestyles. DECC’s ‘Higher nuclear’ scenario also assumes ‘less energy efficiency’. Maybe DECC is implying that nuclear is part and parcel of the myopic mindset locked into unsustainable high-consumption lifestyles. Certainly, Thorium smacks of being yet another technology fix aiming to shore up business as usual.

Clare Bryden