Nuclear Power - the expensive option?

What does our electricity cost?

The only certainty when it comes to working out the price a consumer pays for electricity is to look at the quarterly bill.

The reason I say this is that working out a price for generating a kilowatt hour of gas, coal, oil, nuclear or wind-energy is extremely difficult. It depends how you do the sums, which is why there is so much argument about it.

Coal, oil and gas have supplied most of our electricity for many years and have released large amounts of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide into the atmosphere. But the environmental damage is not shown on your electricity bill; it's not easily quantifiable. The companies causing the damage, so far, do not have to pay for it - though they do have to pay fines if their emissions exceed certain legally defined levels.

Another difficulty arises with your "white meter". You pay one third of the daytime rate for night-time electricity, and it comes mainly from nuclear. These stations also supply most of the base load, and if a nuclear station is switched off for whatever reason the cost of replacing that electricity by some other means is enormous.

There’s also the expense of nuclear “decommissioning”.

There are many engineers who think that the best thing to do with a dead reactor is to leave it where it is. It’s well shielded, secure, no longer contains any radioactive fuel, and occupies a relatively small volume.

Should the cost of - possibly - unnecessarily turning the land back into a green field site be factored into the price? That's what politicians do when they quote the price of nuclear energy.

Another difficulty - politicians decided some years ago that where possible, nuclear stations should use reprocessed fuel from Sellafield ( which costs much more than fresh fuel; about eight times the price).

They also decided that all other nuclear fuel (including that which the nuclear generators couldn't use) should be reprocessed, and that the cost of doing it should go on the nuclear stations’ balance sheet.

Something else which many folk don't know - with the exception of Hartlepool & Heysham, and Heysham II and Torness, no two of the nuclear stations in this country are the same, so there's no economy of scale, no common components, no "three for the price of two".

There was no such problem in America (70% nuclear) or France (75%); their reactors rolled off a production line.

It’s surprising that nuclear power survived at all in the UK when one considers the handicaps imposed on it.

But with increasing concerns about fossil fuels, and the switching off of many of our coal fired power stations (which no longer meet EU emission standards), nuclear power will return, probably in a big way. There's no choice. Just watch.

Next time someone tells you how expensive nuclear power is, you might mention some of these issues.

Nigel Deacon / Habitat21

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