By Dave Elliott
The output from the UK’s 24 GW of renewables was 64.4 TWh in 2014, 19.2% of annual UK electricity supply, overtaking that from the UK’s troubled nuclear fleet, at 63.8 TW in 2014. Wind led, at 31.6 TWh, 9.4% of UK electricity, solar supplied 3.9 TWh (1.2%), hydro 5.9 TWh (1.8%) and bioenergy 22.9 TWh (6.8%). And Scottish renewables supplied the equivalent of 49.6% of Scotland’s electricity use, led by on-shore wind. www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/416310/PN_March_15.pdf
By Dave Elliott
While Germany currently generates about 23% of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to expand that in stages to over 80% by 2050, with all nuclear phased out by 2022, France is not doing so well, arguably since it has the dead weight of a large nuclear capacity to contends with- still supplying around 74% of its electricity. Nuclear still dominates energy policy thinking and public debate.
After the Fukushima accident, Japanese Prime Minister Kan, said ‘Through my experience of the March 11 accident, I came to realize the risk of nuclear energy is too high. It involves technology that cannot be controlled according to our conventional concept of safety.’
His view that ‘Japan should aim for building a society that is not dependent on nuclear power’ now seems widely shared. In a national poll in September, 60% of those surveyed said the number of nuclear reactors should be reduced gradually, while 20% said the nuclear reactors should continue to operate, but no more built. 12% wanted all reactors stopped as soon as possible, while 6% said the existing reactors should be operated and new reactors should be built. The survey showed that overall 70% wanted an end to the country’s reliance on nuclear power generation. Interestingly 65% would accept a cut in electricity use, even if living standards dropped.
Japan plans to formulate a full new energy policy for 2030 by ‘early 2013,’ with the emphasis on renewable energy- it has already introduced extra support for PV solar. When stepping down as Prime Minister, Kan said he would devote himself to renewables, and has called on Japan to do ‘everything we can to make renewable energy our base form of power, overcoming hurdles of technology and cost.’
A similar position has been adopted in Germany, where Angela Merkel has said ‘Germany can become an international pioneer, the first nation to manage to move away from traditional energy sources to renewables.’ It now gets over 20% of its electricity from renewable sources, which will be expanded to around 35% by 2020, by which time most of the country nuclear plants will be closed- the last ones are scheduled to close in 2022.
Italy is in the perhaps enviable position of having no nuclear plants to close, and following the national post-Fukushima referendum, when 94% opposed the governments plans for new nuclear build, it is also now focusing heavily on renewables. Interestingly, it now has more wind power capacity installed than the UK.
Switzerland has decided not to replace its existing nuclear plants, and several other countries around the world have also backed off from planned nuclear programmes , including Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines.
The situation in the UK is very different- we still have plans for eight new plants. The nuclear lobby takes some comfort from opinion polls, some of which suggest that, although support in the UK had fallen after Fukushima, it still outweighed opposition. For example, according to an Ipsos-MORI Poll in August carried out for the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA), when asked ‘how favourable are you to the nuclear energy industry’, 28% said favourable, 24% unfavorable. When asked ‘do you support or oppose building new nuclear power stations to replace the existing fleet’, 36% supported, 28% opposed. However, the results are not consistent across all polls: a poll for the British Science Association found that opposition was still in the majority: it said 37% of the UK population support the use of nuclear power for producing energy in the UK, but opposition was at 47%. www.britishscienceassociation.org/web/ News/FestivalNews/nuclearpoll.htm
Moreover the responses depend a lot on the questions asked. An earlier Ipsos MORI poll, in May, part of a global survey, found that, in the UK, 74% disagreed with the idea of ‘modernization’ of electricity production via nuclear, while a massive 80% felt that ‘nuclear was not a viable long term option.’ www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Docs/Polls/ipsos- global-advisor-nuclear-power-june-2011.pdf
Given this ferbile context, it is perhaps unfortunate that the BBC has seen fit to produce a series of what many critics have seen as unbalanced, very pro-nuclear TV programmes- notably a Horizon documentary, and an edition of its popular science show, ‘Bang Goes the Theory’, both ostensibly focusing on nuclear safety. The main message from them was that the science was clear- there were relatively few deaths at Chernobyl and none could be expected from radiation at Fukushima. This is not the place for a rehearsal of the data and its analysis, but it was not made clear in the BBC programmes that there are divergencies of scientific opinion, over for example the potential negative long-term impacts of low level radiation contamination and the significance of absorbed ‘internal emitters’. This is a contested area, and one you might think worthy of proper coverage. For example, for an exemplary exercise in exploring some of the different views, see: www.safegrounds.com/radiation_risk.htm
Many groups have reacted angrily to the alleged lack of balance in these BBC programmes: for example see: www.sgr.org.uk/resources/sgr-supports-joint-complaint-bbc-over-fukushima-documentary
The critics view is that the programmes basically adopted the arguably rather limited view that what mattered was the hard, confirmed, data, on deaths, rather than speculation. So Bang Goes the Theory claimed that they were just 122 from Chernobyl and zero, from radiation, from Fukushima. A report on Chernobyl from the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, published in February, adopted a similar approach. While earlier IAEA/WHO studies had talked of possibly around 4000 subsequent early deaths in the region amongst some classifications of those exposed, and studies covering a wider area put the full figure for total eventual deaths very much higher (ranging up to 60,000), the new report decided not to speculate about future deaths ‘because of unacceptable uncertainties in the predictions’.
Even higher death rate projections have been put forward by some critics. See for example www.wagingpeace.org/articles/db_article.php?article_id=141 and [http://fukushima.greenaction-japan.org/
They, and the other dissenting critics, may be wrong, but it is arguably evasive to just ignore the debate or the issues. But you can see why it might be an attractive approach for those keen to promote nuclear power.
Nuclear safety and risks are very emotionally charged issues, with any uncertainty clearly being likely to lead to public concern. But limited and simplified analysis may not be sufficient to calm fears. Dr Mike Weightmans new NII report on UK plant safety gives the UK nuclear industry a clean bill of health, but, given what its critics see as a relatively narrow terms of reference, it may not convince those opposed to nuclear power, who in any case put forward many other reasons for their opposition. While the nuclear industry and the government many wish the debate over nuclear to be closed down, economic, security, and other wider strategic issues, as well as the ongoing debate over risks, seem likely to continually open it up. In that context, and with Japan, German, Italy and others backing off from nuclear, what we need from the media is coverage that is better balanced.