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The debate on UK electricity generation: further contributions

17 May 2013


From Mr R. L. Skelton

Sir, - I was very interested to read the article on thorium by the Bishop of Hereford , the Rt Revd Anthony Priddis ( Comment, 3 May). I cannot, however, let the comments by Clare Bryden (Letters, 10 May) go unchallenged.

As Christians, we should be taking far more interest in the future of our energy supplies, taking into consideration justice for present and future generations. Decisions that we make now will affect our children and grandchildren, and also those people now deemed to be in fuel poverty. Last week, carbon-dioxide levels reached 400ppm for the first time in several million years, and any future energy policy must take notice of this.

The UK needs a generation mix that will deliver a reliable electricity supply with a low carbon footprint at a cost that does not put even more people into fuel poverty. This can only be done if we include nuclear in that mix.

Most of our coal-fired power stations are more than 50 years old, and many of our nuclear stations are approaching the end of their lives, leaving a large gap in capacity, which must be filled. While renewables, mostly wind, have a part to play, they can never completely fill the gap.

Offshore wind is particularly expensive. According to figures obtained for DECC by Mott McDonald in June 2010, offshore wind costs about £160/MWhr, nuclear about £99/MWhr, and onshore wind £94/MWhr. Hence your correspondent is wrong in implying that nuclear is the most expensive option.

Photo-voltaics come in at about £250/MWhr, which is why all renewables need a significant incentive compared with gas, at about £80/MWhr. This incentive at the moment comes from the electricity consumer in the form of higher charges, which drive people into fuel poverty.

Nuclear electricity has the advantage of being almost as cheap as onshore wind and much cheaper than any other form of low-carbon electricity, and is far more reliable. It does not need vast expenditure on the grid, as the planned new stations will make use of existing infrastruscture, and is much easier to control, as, unlike wind, it is predictable. The real problem with nuclear is that it is very capital-intensive; so investors understandably want some guarantee of a return.

That is what the debate between the Government and ÉDF is all about. ÉDF is not prepared to risk very large sums of money while the UK electricity market is so complex. All that it is asking for is comparable treatment to that of other low-carbon electricity suppliers.

I do agree with Ms Bryden that there is scope for more energy-saving; but, until the price gets very much higher, we are unlikely to see much progress in this area. The effect of smart meters generally lasts less than six months. Perhaps if the universal pensioners' winter fuel allowance was used instead to help all in fuel poverty, including young families, to reduce their consumption, we might achieve something.

If, as Christians, we want to conserve the environment without burdening the vulnerable with large energy bills, I do not see that we have much choice. As for thorium, yes, it may have a future, but we need conventional uranium fission now.

Magdalene College
Cambridge CB3 0AG


From the Revd Dr David L. Gosling

Sir, - Clare Bryden's letter presents a totally misleading case against nuclear power in her criticisms of Bishop Priddis's article. In the short-term future, coal power stations are closing at a time when coal prices are low and gas is more costly.

Gas is plentiful and relatively clean, but the pipeline and liquefaction infrastructure does not exist to allow it to be easily transported to the UK. Gas throughout Europe is, therefore, currently more expensive than in the United States.

Against this background, nuclear power is behind schedule, and the renewables are very costly, though the industry believes that it can reduce prices if it receives more orders, facilitated, it is hoped, by government incentives. In the longer, mid-century term, we need to look at the full range of energy options, maximising the opportunities to use less energy, and balancing use of all low-carbon energy sources, including both the renewables and nuclear power, to give us a clean energy system without vulnerability to price shocks.

If I have any quibble with Bishop Priddis's pro-nuclear article, it is that he does not appear to appreciate that thorium reactors are based on uranium as much as more conventional ones, only using a different uranium isotope (uranium-233), which can also be used to make a nuclear explosion.

2 St Luke's Mews, Searle Street
Cambridge CB4 3DF

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