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Noisy support for an obvious failure

One impact of this continuing official nuclear support is that climate action is being diminished and slowed. As a paper in Nature Energy (which one of us co-authored) showed in 2020, in worldwide data over the past three decades, the scales of national nuclear programmes do not tend to correlate with generally lower carbon emissions. The building of renewables does.

worldwide substantive picture that shows nuclear power overwhelmingly to be slower, less effective and more expensive at tackling climate disruption than are renewable and storage alternatives.

As nuclear power sinks, its supporters crow louder. Why do media and governments insist on nuclear for climate?

Noisy support for an obvious failure — Beyond Nuclear International
By Andrew Stirling and Phil Johnstone, 23 Oct 22
At Edinburgh’s Haymarket station, on the route used by COP26 delegates hopping across to Glasgow last November, a large poster displayed a vista from the head of Loch Shiel. In the foreground, a monument to the Jacobite rebellion towers from the spot where Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard. From there, the water sweeps back to a rugged line of hills.
This is one of Scotland’s most iconic views, famous for both its history and its role in the Harry Potter films.
On the poster, written in the sky above the loch are the words: “Keep nature natural: more nuclear power means more wild spaces like these.” At the bottom is a hashtag – #NetZeroNeedsNuclear – with no further mention of who might be behind this advert.

But it’s not hard to find a website for this group, which claims to be run by “a team of young, international volunteers made up of engineers, scientists and communicators”, all with the engagingly smiley profile pictures to be expected from citizen activists.

Only when you scroll to the end do you see these activities are ‘sponsored’ by nuclear companies EDF and Urenco. At the bottom, it is explained that Nuclear Needs Net Zero is part of the Young Generation Network (YGN) – “young members of the Nuclear Institute (NI), which is the professional body and learned society for the UK nuclear sector”. The website asserts that the Nuclear4Climate campaign – described as “grassroots” both on the site and in a presentation to an International Atomic Agency conference in 2019 – is in fact “coordinated via regional and national nuclear associations and technical societies”……………………………………………

Of course, all this is par for the course in the creative world of PR. But there are more substantive grounds why nuclear advocates might wish to avoid too much public scrutiny at the moment. One reality, which can be agreed on from all sides, is that this is by far the worst period in the 70-year history of this ageing industry. So how come it is benefitting from growing and noisy support in mainstream and social media? Why are easily refuted arguments still being deployed to justify new nuclear power alongside renewables in the energy supply mix? And why has the media seized so enthusiastically on a few prominent converts to the nuclear cause?

Nuclear loses out to renewables

At current prices, atomic energy now costs around three times as much as wind or solar power. And that’s before you consider the full expense of waste management, elaborate security, anti-proliferation measures or periodic accidents. For more than a decade, nuclear has been plagued by escalating costsexpanding build times and crashing orders. Trends in recent years are all steeply in the wrong direction.

So the rising clamour of advocacy seems to be in inverse proportion to performance. Whatever view one takes, nuclear power is in a worse position than it’s ever been compared with low-carbon alternatives – and a position that is rapidly declining further.

In fact, despite misleading suggestions to the contrary by senior figures, background government data has for decades shown that the massive scale of viable UK renewable resources is clearly adequate for all foreseeable needs. Even with storage and flexibility costs included, renewables are available far more rapidly and cost-effectively than nuclear power.

So, for all the breakdancing, it really is a conundrum why persistently bullish government and industry claims on nuclear power remain so seriously under-challenged in the wider debate. It is becoming ever more clear that nuclear plans are diverting attention, money and resources that could be far more effective if used in other ways.

One impact of this continuing official nuclear support is that climate action is being diminished and slowed. As a paper in Nature Energy (which one of us co-authored) showed in 2020, in worldwide data over the past three decades, the scales of national nuclear programmes do not tend to correlate with generally lower carbon emissions. The building of renewables does.

In fact, this study found “a negative association between the scales of national nuclear and renewables attachments. This suggests nuclear and renewables… tend to crowd each other out.”

The issues are, of course, complex. But this finding supports what the dire performance picture also predicts: that nuclear power diverts resources and attention away from more effective strategies, increasing costs to consumers and taxpayers. So it is even odder that loud voices continue to make naïve calls to ‘do everything’ – that nuclear must on principle be considered ‘part of the mix’ – as if expense, development time, limited resources and diverse preferable alternatives are not all crucial issues.

Despite the urgency of the climate emergency, there is strangely little discussion about this evidence that nuclear power may be impeding progress with options that clearly work better.

The media loves nuclear power

In fact, the British media has developed a habit of doggedly repeating claims by the nuclear industry that are, at best, somewhat wishful thinking.

One would not guess from all the noise about ‘small modular reactors’ (SMR), for instance, that the record of new nuclear designs has consistently been one of delayed schedules and escalating prices. One might easily miss that efforts at nuclear cost reduction have always depended more on scaling up than scaling down. And new SMR programmes do not even claim to address pressing current carbon targets. With debate persistently dominated by naively optimistic projections, it is oddly neglected that these familiar claims and sources have all repeatedly been falsified in the past.

Likewise, UK media debate remains unquestioningly locked into sentimental attachments to old ideas of ‘base load’ nuclear power – a notion now recognised by the electricity industry to be outdated. Far from being an automatic advantage, the inflexibly steady ‘base load’ output of a typical nuclear power reactor can present growing difficulties in a modern dynamic electricity system. It often seems to be forgotten that frequent unplanned nuclear closures pose their own kinds of intermittency risks, made worse by the massive unit sizes of nuclear reactors……………………………………

It is against this substantive background that the persistent intensity of UK government support for nuclear power is so odd – and the rising clamour of UK pro-nuclear PR and media articles so striking. Nor is it just the media. Among campaigners, it is strange, given resolute government nuclear commitments, that even some of the previously most critical voices (like Friends of the Earth), seem to be growing strangely quieter…………………………………………………………………………………..

What remains more interesting is why parts of the press should so often and loudly repeat this ‘repentant critic’ trope in aid of such a struggling industry.

One more recent example is that of Zion Lights, whose billing in the Daily Mail as “the former XR [Extinction Rebellion] communications head” has been countered by that organisation. Lights’ shift of position – leaving the Extinction Rebellion to campaign in favour of nuclear power – was featured between June and September 2020 in City AM, the Daily Mail (twice) and the Daily Telegraph, as well as in an article on the BBC News website. Then, in a second round of attention in October, the story was again covered by the Mail, with Lights also featuring in The Sun, this time with a spin (since debunked) targeting wind power…………………..

What is even more notable about this specific instance of a general syndrome is that Lights – the individual at the heart of this story – has (to her credit) made no effort to conceal that she was employed for a period by a high-profile industry-supporting public relations outfit with a long track record of unashamed advocacy of nuclear power – the US Environmental Progress organisation……………

A lack of voices for renewables

The implications here go beyond any individual. What is strange is that media attention is so strong on these kinds of arguments, while counter-commentary is so relatively quiet. After all, whilst not infallible, environmental concerns about nuclear power have over the years generally been broadly vindicated……………………………….

Nor are these odd patterns restricted to traditional media. Social media also seems susceptible. At the same time as Lights’ oddly prominent personal journey was garnering so much unquestioning news attention, other striking developments were under way on Twitter. Here, the Friends of Nuclear Energy set up shop in December 2019, the UK Pro Nuclear Power group (UKPNPG) in April 2020, and Mums for Nuclear UK in July 2020.

In an especially intriguing example, Greens For Nuclear Energy has been active on Twitter since May 2019, spending considerable effort promoting nuclear power and attempting to change the position of the Green Party. Then Liberal Democrats for nuclear power (LDs4nuclear) set up on Twitter in October 2020. In taking up our invitation to respond to core questions raised in this article, GreensForNuclearEnergy pointed to its website, on which it emphatically urges “no compromise to combat climate change”.

This Green Party case is particularly noteworthy, since it is (strangely given underlying patterns of public concern on nuclear issues), the only organised political force in England collectively offering a consistently sceptical position about nuclear power in Parliament. With the longstanding Green grounding on this issue so strong over a half-century, it is especially strange that this development should come at a time when – at least for the Greens – the argument is more over than it has ever been.

What remains particularly striking about all the instances we cite is that none engage substantively with the real-world performance of nuclear power as it is. Despite vivid rhetorics around needs for ‘science-based’ policy – and occasionally colourful fear-mongering about intermittency ‘putting the lights out’ – none of these prolific voices address (let alone refute) the worldwide substantive picture that shows nuclear power overwhelmingly to be slower, less effective and more expensive at tackling climate disruption than are renewable and storage alternatives.

UK government policy

Despite the surface commitment, we see this trend in UK government energy policy too. Dig into more specialist civil service policy papers and you find spiralling prices and little in the way of an energy-related case for nuclear power. But – in a remarkable departure from the normally diligent attention to costs – the most recent energy white paper ignored all that boring economic detail. Official UK nuclear attachments are treated as an unquestionable given.

If a persuasive explanation is sought for this persistent intensity of UK government support for nuclear power, then the real picture seems clear behind the distractions. Official UK defence documentationmany unanswered national and international media reports, brief admissions to Parliament and explicit statements in other nuclear-armed countries all make it pretty clear that the reasons are actually more military than civilian.

So, it might be understood why deep-rooted nuclear interests are seeking to hide these inconvenient facts behind pretty pictures of the West Highlands. But why is the media so keen to help, squirrelling realities away from view behind tales of repentant environmentalists? Why is so much new noise building up behind nuclear power in formerly critical political parties, just when the case has grown weaker than ever?

Profound issues are raised here, not only concerning the cost and speed of climate action, but about the independence and professionalism of the UK media and the health of British democracy as a whole. Whichever opinion we each take on nuclear issues – and whatever the undoubted uncertainties and ambiguities – we should all care very deeply about this.

Andy Stirling is Professor of Science and Technology Policy at the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex. Dr. Phil Johnstone is Senior Research Fellow at the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex.


October 24, 2022 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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