by Tom Chivers
Thursday, 4
November 2021
Debate
07:00

The Lib Dems are deluded on the environment

Nuclear is the only way they could achieve their ambitious climate goals
by Tom Chivers
Sir Ed Davey doesn’t get how nuclear energy works. Credit: Getty

The world is on course to miss the 1.5°C target quite significantly. That will be bad. And Britain, although it is reducing its emissions, has not done so fast enough. Sir Ed Davey, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, rightly says that government failings ahead of COP26 have been “hugely disappointing”.

But at the moment, the British parliament is preparing for a second reading of a bill called the “Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill”. Under the current system, anyone wishing to develop a new source of nuclear energy in the UK has to put in all the money themselves and will not see any revenue until the plant starts producing electricity. These major projects take a long time and are inherently risky, so the companies only take on the project if they can expect very high returns.

Under the new bill, the British public would support some of the costs of building the plants, and some of the financial risk of the project failing. That would cost the taxpayer upfront, but would (at least according to the government’s own estimates) save us about £30 billion on each project over the long term, because developers could be given a more reliable, and therefore lower, rate of return. The nuclear industry has welcomed the bill.

Someone who hasn’t welcomed it, though, is Sir Ed Davey, and his Liberal Democrats. Despite their extraordinarily ambitious plans for dealing with climate change — 80% of energy from renewables by 2030! — the party has, along with the SNP, called for the second reading of the bill to be declined.

Partly their objections seem nonsensical, at least to me — it fails to “accelerate the deployment of renewable power or the removal of restrictions on solar”, or to support investment in “tidal and wave power, energy storage, demand response, smart grids and hydrogen”. It’s a nuclear energy bill. It doesn’t make any provisions for banning factory farming either. “This bill intended to do one thing does not do these totally different things that I approve of” is a weird position to take. In a slightly less random but still silly objection, they complain that it doesn’t address concerns about nuclear waste; well, no, it’s about the financing. There are different regulations for dealing with the waste.

But they do say that there is no “environmental case” for nuclear power stations. And that seems baffling to me. There is an obvious environmental case, which is that we would be able to produce more energy — which is good! — with hugely lower carbon emissions. Nuclear is comparable to wind and solar in terms of its carbon emissions over the lifetime of a plant; it’s about one-tenth as polluting as hydropower, and hundreds of times less polluting than any fossil fuel. It’s also one of the very safest forms of energy. If we can find a way of building nuclear plants more cheaply then that is an unmitigated good thing.

The Lib Dems should be one of the strongest advocates for nuclear power. They are committed to combating climate change and have ambitious-to-the-point-of-unrealistic goals for doing so (it’s easy to make big promises when you know you’ll never have to fulfil them). And I thought that they were committed to evidence, to science, to what works.

But despite all their rhetoric, and despite their leader’s pronounced disappointment at the government’s failure, their biggest contribution this week has been to attempt to block a way of making low-carbon energy easier to build. No matter what airy promises are made at COP26, progress will be difficult if this sort of grim Nimbyism carries on.

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  • A good summary.
    The only explanation I can think of for the Greens/Liberals/others stance is that the individuals concerned were born into hippy families during the 1960s/70s and have learnt nothing since.
    I simply can’t accept their pretence to be genuinely “committed” to a low-carbon future.

  • All governments have supported investment in tidal and wave power but the different methods designed to do the job have so far failed.
    The Orkney seas are subjected to the effect of the North Sea and the Atlantic colliding. Ideal you would think for tidal and wave power but the first designs, placed in the Pentland Firth, quickly sunk to the bottom. Even putting subsequent designs within the islands (where the force is somewhat diluted) have not been successful yet.
    Also “transporting” such power to the national grid from so far north uses a large part of the energy generated.
    I am sure R & D will continue in this field but in no way could it replace (even in a small way) a number of new nuclear plants.
    I am surprised that the Cop26 conference is not realistic about the extent of uninterrupted electricity that is needed in advanced economies but, I suppose, if this was muted, it would be regarded as climate scepticism.

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