“Mind the Gap” Goes Nuclear

The gap between political rhetoric and political action is nowhere more obvious and gaping than with energy policy. All of the available options for Europe have considerable political downside. Local community objections to wind farms make them “difficult”. Importing more gas from Russia makes “us” more “vulnerable”. New coal-fired power stations are a rather visible proof that one is not taking climate change seriously. Then there is nuclear…

The great advantage of nuclear power, from a European politician’s point of view, is that it has the appearance of being the “last man standing” when looking at energy options. When you have knocked out all the other options, it is said, you are left with nuclear power, which is why the electorate will eventually accept it. It is almost universally assumed among politicians that the public will accept nuclear power when the alternative is “the lights going out”. Its clear downside, politically that is, is the substantial body of public opinion that is vehemently opposed to the construction of such new nuclear power stations now.

In a sense therefore, all the political class have to do is to wait until the public recognises the inevitable. Three factors are now making this apparently rosy scenario for the political class look decidedly darker.

Firstly, the new nuclear power station being constructed in Finland is turning out to be significantly over budget and will be operational on nowhere near the original timescale quoted by the industry. This is likely to feed public scepticism about nuclear power rather than to pave the way for its more rapid increase in market share across Europe and the U.S.

The European scheme for the importation of non-Russian gas seems to have been stymied by the smart footwork of Prime Minister Putin and the team at Gazprom. There are two proposed gas pipelines in southern Europe which are in competition: Nabucco and South Stream. The wise money seems to be moving behind only South Stream ever actually being constructed, increasing Europe’s dependency on Russian gas and the possibility that they may occasionally turn it off – with all the potential political downside of that.

Finally, if we are indeed witnessing a repeat of the old story (the industry makes completely unrealistic claims about cost and timescale, gets the job, then delivers the expensive item years late) something else follows. The assumption of many, like the UK’s former finance minister Nigel Lawson, that nuclear power will play a major role in reducing global carbon emissions, will be wrong. Then, sooner or much more likely later, the public will have to face the fact that climate change means change. And by then, judging by the usual delays and cost overruns, nuclear just will not be the easy answer.

Until then, however, the gap between the politicians’ professed love of energy security and their actions to achieve it will grow ever wider. Candle stick makers might wish to consider the timing of a major new marketing campaign.

April 2010