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Energy minister gives grudging nuke endorsement

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Comment UK Energy Minister Chris Huhne has given a ringing endorsement of nuclear energy and lauded the potential of thorium reactor technology, in his speech to the Royal Society today.

Actually, he didn't – that sentence is entirely a Johann-Hari style fictionalisation. Huhne did give a speech to the Royal Society on nuclear energy, but if it's an "endorsement", it must be the surliest, most unenthusiastic "endorsement" any minister has ever made.

And Huhne didn't mention thorium once.

Official coalition policy is that nuclear energy is a viable option for future low-carbon baseload - but Huhne (nee Paul-Huhne) today painted a picture of nuclear energy as one of the most expensive scientific failures in history, and implied that it embodies the worst of British administration and management.

"On nuclear policy, we have exhausted the possibilities. We have made pretty much every mistake human ingenuity could devise. And boy, are we British inventive," said Huhne.

"Only in the late 1980s did reform bring about the end of a centrally directed energy policy. When nuclear power was held up to the cold hard light of the market, it proved to be uneconomic. Never again. Never again."

Huhne criticised the nuclear industry for its secrecy and technical incompatibilities. "Designs were chosen and delivered without proper oversight," he said. Huhne complains about having to store "6,900 cubic metres of high-level nuclear waste", and managing stockpiles of plutonium (Which he doesn't have to store or manage - but more on that in a bit).

The minister does admit that even after the cost has been taken into account, nuclear is the cheapest base load option we have. "Offshore wind is assessed at £130 per megawatt hour, gas with carbon capture at £95 per megawatt hour, and nuclear at £66 per megawatt hour. These figures take account of waste and decommissioning costs, so nuclear should still be the cheapest low carbon source of electricity."

Careful readers will note that without the burden of CCS, gas is by far the cheapest of all: and likely to fall dramatically as onshore unconventional reserves are exploited. We'll have more gas than we know what to do with.

Thorium is the biggest omission from Huhne's speech, and shows he's still wedded to the "Atomkraft Nein Danke" mentality of the Cold War protest era.

The discussion of stockpiles and waste also omits several innovations. As we discussed here, 99 per cent of waste can now be converted back to fuel using fusion. And the USA and Russia have been giving the stuff away for years.

The minister reiterates the view that public subsidies must not be committed to supporting nuclear energy ... which is a controversial assertion. If, by the narrow definition of 'subsidy', we mean a state-ordered wealth transfer from the citizen to hand-picked energy corporations via the Treasury, then he may be semantically correct. But if it means a mandatory wealth transfer from the citizen to hand-picked energy corporations, or energy sources, direct from the citizen, then he's on sticky ground. Support for renewable energy is legislated by the state; it is unarguably a market distortion, one in which the costs are hidden from users. Yet this is the way government picks winners, or more accurately, the way it supports the losers.

The nuclear industry has become as canny as the renewable lobbyists at playing this game, and both have lobbied successfully for a "carbon floor price", introduced by Chancellor George Osbourne earlier this year. With a mandatory "floor price", buyers of cheaper energy pay more to subsidise – and guarantee profits to – generators of more expensive energy. The difference is met by industry and consumers in higher bills. The cost, according to Cameron's energy advisor, suggested in July, is that "our policies would increase household electricity prices by 25 per cent in 2015 and 30 per cent in 2020 compared to what they would have been in the absence of policies".

So as endorsements go, Huhne couldn't have been less enthusiastic. China is pressing ahead with a new, ambitious 4G programme based on the thorium fuel cycle, with the goal of production within 20 years.

Ministers, civil servants and their environmentally enthusiastic advisors look increasingly out of touch. A recent poll showed British support for nuclear energy has increased in recent years, rising even after the coverage of the Fukushima meltdown. ®

You can read Huhne's speech here.

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