Why the UK Government Is Building 11 New Nuclear Plants Despite Mounting Criticism
Electricity from proposed new nuclear stations in the UK will be more expensive than from any other nuclear reactors in the world, yet the government is pressing ahead with its plan to build 11 new installations, despite mounting criticism.
This contrasts sharply with Germany’s policy of phasing out nuclear power altogether—and experts in nuclear policy now see a possible explanation in the fact that Britain is a nuclear weapons state, while Germany has no wish to be one.
The UK’s approach also differs from that of France, which is investing heavily in renewables to cut its reliance on the atom. All three countries say their policies are based on the need to reduce greenhouse gases.
Renewables have already created more jobs and wealth in Germany than nuclear power, while Britain is cutting back drastically on support for solar power and on-shore wind in favor of nuclear stations designed and built by companies from France, China, Japan and the U.S.
The strange mismatch between Europe’s two largest economies, Germany and the UK, is puzzling experts, especially since the International Energy Agency and the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency say in the 2015 Projected Costs of Generating Electricity report that Britain’s plans will make its nuclear electricity the most expensive in the world.
The guaranteed subsidy for the new stations from the British government to the French government-owned company EDF makes the cost of electricity one-fifth more than nuclear energy in France, a third more than in the U.S., and twice that of China or Korea.
This has caused a number of influential figures in the UK to call on the government to reconsider its program. The Financial Times business newspaper called it a “misconceived project.”
The Conservative government, elected in May, lacks a coherent energy policy after cutting subsidies for on-shore wind and solar, but sticks to its line that nuclear power is essential for turning Britain into a low-carbon economy.
Academics have been examining Britain’s secretive decision-making processes to try to discover why two economies as similar as Germany’s and the UK’s—both countries wanting to reduce fossil fuel use in order to cut greenhouse gas emissions—should take such divergent decisions.
Britain has much better renewable resources, yet has decided to opt for nuclear power, even though it is more expensive than on-shore wind or solar.
Phil Johnstone and Andy Stirling, University of Sussex research experts in the nuclear policy area, have put forward the suggestion that the UK needs to continue to build and run civilian nuclear power stations to maintain enough nuclear expertise in the country to run its nuclear submarines independently, and so keep its status as a nuclear weapons state.
This possible link between civil and military nuclear power has never been debated in public, although the British government has repeatedly drawn attention to the lack of young people entering the nuclear industry, and has spent millions of pounds on training programmes to attract them.
Its declared position is that nuclear power is needed to combat climate change, and that there is no link between civil and military needs.
A spokesman for the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change told Carbon Brief: “Nuclear power remains the choice that gives reliable power when it is needed, at the same time as helping Britain meet its carbon emissions targets.
“When the cost of extra backup needed for intermittent renewables is included, the cost of nuclear is competitive with any other technology.
“The UK is one of relatively few countries that has well-developed new nuclear projects at the moment. As such, cost estimates for financing new nuclear in the UK are likely to be more realistic and up-to-date compared to most countries.”
Plans for the first two reactors to be built, by EDF at Hinkley Point in south-west England, are well advanced, although preparatory work on the site has been halted and a starting date has been repeatedly put off.
The first reactor was due to open in 2018, but that was put back to 2023, and has just been postponed again because a final agreement over financing has yet to be agreed between EDF and the British government.
The government has already agreed to subsidize the cost of electricity from the station for 35 years, but financing the eye-watering £24 billion (US$37bn) construction cost has proved problematic.
A number of potential partners have dropped out, and EDF has found a potential new partner in the Chinese state-owned nuclear corporations, which wish to build their own nuclear power stations at other sites in Britain.
The latest delay and the escalating construction costs have led to the project being labelled the most expensive in the world.
According to The Independent newspaper, the UK chancellor, George Osborne, is still confident the deal with the French will represent good value for money.
In the UK Parliament, the House of Lords economic affairs committee chairman, Lord Turnbull, a former chief secretary to the Treasury, suggested to Osborne: “This thing at £92 (US$142) per kilowatt hour is turning out to be incredibly expensive and a huge commitment, and for a design which the French can’t get to work.
“Shouldn’t we really go back to the drawing board, rather than plumping for what I think will be a kind of bottomless pit and a big white elephant?”
Osborne replied that he continued to back the project.
The Financial Times disagreed, and said in an editorial: “The UK should think again about Hinkley Point nuclear power station. The economics of EDF’s project look less and less desirable. The government should seize the chance offered by this pause to look at the whole misconceived project again.
“Backing out of Hinkley Point might upset the French and embarrass the government. But a wish to spare ministerial blushes is no excuse for saddling the country with costs it cannot afford.”
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By Eric Tate and Christopher Emrich
Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
By Jessica Corbett
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.