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Newsletter 11th January 2008

- Nuclear power in the UK - The Tata Nano - The success of GM crops

Nuclear Power in the UK

The bullet has finally been bitten. The big news on the energy front in the UK this week is the government's formal backing for a new generation of nuclear power stations. This has been a long time coming, but for several years this decision has been a question of when rather than if. It represents a turnaround from the position in the 2003 Energy White Paper, when the official government position was anti-nuclear and renewables were the path for the future. Not that renewables will be ignored, just that the politicians recognise that, when push comes to shove, the electorate needs a stable, reliable energy supply and would be quick to punish any party which put this at risk.

The government is not actually putting any money forward for nuclear new build, in sharp contrast to the subsidies on offer for wind and solar power. It has, however, promised to make changes to the planning system, which currently allow national opposition groups to delay decisions for years via enquiries which cost millions of taxpayers' money. The views of local residents should, of course, always be listened to and taken into account, but in practice people living near existing nuclear stations (and this is where new ones would be built) are generally much more positive than the general population. They have lived with the reality and, by and large, have no problem with it.

Greenpeace, in particular, seem likely to spend their membership fees on further legal challenges to the government's decision, having delayed it once by claiming the consultation process to be inadequate. Do they still pin their hopes on surrounding the UK with wind farms, and rely on peak demand only occurring when the wind is blowing fast enough to generate power, but not so fast that the turbines have to be shut down? Even installing five times the nominal capacity to compensate for the very low efficiency of wind power would not solve the problem. This would still mean there were times when power supply was inadequate. And, in the meantime, conventional power stations have to be kept running (very inefficiently) on standby.

Power engineers and many politicians now recognise that there are really only two proven, reliable sources of base load power: nuclear and coal. Despite coal's relative cheapness, installing (as yet unproven) carbon capture technology would double the price of new power stations and reduce their efficiency. Which, if politicians are really serious about reducing carbon emissions, means nuclear is the only option. France, which has more than 80% of its power generated by nuclear stations, has a per capita carbon footprint about half that of the UK.

Caroline Lucas, the Green party MEP, ran through the gamut of knee-jerk opposition on the Radio 4 Today programme on Thursday, against the positive arguments of Sir David King. She downplayed the current 20% contribution of nuclear to the mix of power generation by saying it represented a much smaller part of the country's overall energy use. Not that she would ever admit the same about wind power, of course. She suggested that encouraging nuclear would somehow disadvantage renewables. Far from it: the recent announcement of 7,000 offshore wind turbines was a massive Christmas present to the industry, which will now struggle to meet the target, and will probably be held back by the lack of inter-connectors to bring the power to land. She suggested, quite rightly, that there is great scope for energy efficiency, as if people's energy use could somehow be gradually reduced as the current nuclear capacity is decommissioned. And she promoted decentralised combined heat and power generation as the answer to the current grid system. All well and good for some areas, but centralised generation, despite the large losses when transmitting power over long distances, is a hugely efficient way of matching supply with demand. Decentralising generation would mean a much greater total installed capacity and higher fuel use.

If Greenpeace and other environmentalist groups are serious about their commitment to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, they should overcome their long-standing opposition and back nuclear power to form an increasing share of capacity for the next generation. France has been conspicuously successful, and has an exemplary safety record. The time is right for the UK to follow this lead.

The Tata Nano

Another area where different agendas are in conflict is personal transport, in this case in India. The Tata Motor company this week launched the world's cheapest car, the Nano. This will sell at 100,000 rupees ($2,500, or less than £1,500), and will bring motoring within reach of millions of increasingly prosperous Indians. Whole families on one motorbike may soon become a rarity.

In most senses, this is a triumph, which should benefit enormous numbers of people not just in India but across the whole developing world. It brings benefits which most of us take for granted to one of the world's largest countries and at one time would have been seen as a natural and welcome part of growing prosperity. However, the other side of the coin is that millions more cars will increase congestion and, most importantly from the point of view of environmental pressure groups, reinforce and expand dependence on oil.

We take the view that all new developments come with their own problems, but these are soluble. The rich world has no right to dictate the development path of India or any other country. There can be no force-fitting into some path of "sustainable development" mapped out by people living comfortable Western lifestyles. Human ingenuity has enabled the Tata Nano to be developed, and it will enable India to adapt to the consequences.

The Success of GM crops

Those opposed to crop biotechnology continue to point out the occasional problems experienced by a small minority of farmers and the supposed health risks of GM food, but reality continues to show a different picture. An article in this week's Times (Frankenstein Foods are not Monsters, by Carl Mortished, 9th January) re-emphasises the business success. There are two big stand-alone companies whose sole business is in seeds (biotech and other) and crop protection products: Monsanto and Syngenta. Both are achieving great success, with Monsanto's share price rising by 140% and Syngenta's by 50% in 2007, both on the back of increased sales and profitability.

It is inconceivable, as the Soil Association and others would have us believe, that farmers are paying premium prices for GM seeds, year after year, for no benefit. Farmers have to make a living and will not waste money. Companies which sell seeds which don't live up to their promise will quickly go under, and it is foolish to suggest otherwise. There is a market for organic produce among those who can afford it, but the intrinsic low productivity of organic agriculture is never going to provide enough food to feed 6.5 billion people, let alone the 9 billion projected by mid-century.

We don't expect opposition to GM crops to just disappear, but it would be a big step if activists argued on the basis of facts rather than blind prejudice.