Energy security is becoming an increasingly ‘hot’ topic in UK politics. Ed Miliband recently announced a freeze on energy prices should Labour win the next election, and just a couple of weeks ago week prime minister David Cameron announced a deal allowing EDF energy to replace the old Hinkley B with a new UK nuclear power station – the first to be built in two decades.
(David Cameron and Ed Davey, Secretary of State for Energy, view plans for the new nuclear site at Hinkley, Somerset)
Politicians have a frustrating tendency to use the term ‘energy security’ to refer to any number of different things, in the UK and elsewhere. Generally, however, the term is taken to mean some form of continuity in energy supplies, at stable prices. The UK energy system is largely privatised, the idea being that the energy market should look after itself with minimal government interference beyond regulation. At the same time, like for most states, the combination of finite and declining fossil fuel energy resources with the growing threat of climate change make energy security a growing priority for the government. The need to keep prices at a level acceptable to consumers has to be juggled alongside this changing reality.
It is clear that the UK energy market, dominated by ‘the big 6’ energy companies, is increasingly dysfunctional. On top of this, the existing relationship between corporate and state power leaves a lot to be desired – profit-driven corporations, unsurprisingly, do not place consumers or climate change high on their priority list. In the words of Caroline Kuzemko (University of Exeter), ‘the current design of our energy system and policy works to the detriment of delivering on climate change mitigation, energy security and affordability goals’.
While Secretary of Energy Ed Davey said that the new nuclear plans ‘will increase energy security and resilience from a safe, reliable, home-grown source of electricity’, it is clear that whatever your stance on nuclear power, these plans are deeply problematic. To say that they will increase ‘energy security’, is to take a very narrow interpretation of the concept. If it works as planned (which there is no guarantee for – EDF has been building a similar plant in the north of France which has been plagued by delays and cost increases), it may improve supplies, but it is unclear whether or not it would have any positive impact on prices – particularly given the length of the contract EDF has been given. Nuclear energy is extremely expensive – the EDF contract is costing the UK £16bn, and comes with serious environmental risks. The government made the case that there are no alternatives, but this is simply not true.
The announcement of the Hinkley C plans, moreover, come at a time when many countries are veering away from nuclear power. Germany, previously a big proponent of nuclear power, are closing their stations down after reviews following the crisis at Fukushima in Japan – in favour of safer and more sustainable energy provision. Even George Monbiot, who is actually in favour of nuclear energy, has spoken out against the Hinkley plans. He describes the technologies to be used as outdated, committing the UK to ‘to 20th-century technologies through most of the 21st’, also noting that the plans are overpriced, providing a safe income for corporations while leaving any risks to be assumed by the taxpayer. Even more problematically, the government has no plans for how to clear up the nuclear waste created by the plant.
The coalition has ‘rebranded’ nuclear power as a low-carbon energy, and it may help the UK meet carbon emissions targets. However, it is not a renewable source – the materials needed are finite and on top of this, it leaves nuclear waste. Safety is a huge concern, and the Japanese situation has clearly shown that even in technologically advanced countries where safety is a top-priority, nuclear power is not a ‘safe’ option. However, there are other options, as the German case clearly shows. While cutting nuclear power, Germany is radically transforming its energy supply system to move away from fossil fuels and towards renewable sources of energy, while reducing emissions and improving energy efficiency. It has also made the German energy market much more decentralised – another lesson the UK could clearly benefit from.
Nuclear power is not the solution to the UK’s energy security problems, particularly not in the form of the Hinkley plans. Any efforts to improve UK supply and prices have to start with reforming and decentralising the energy market. This is also noted by Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, who has spoken out in favour of reforming the energy market to loosen the strangehold of the big six energy companies, asking the government to increase ‘support for community and co-operatively owned renewable schemes, where people benefit from generating their own power’, noting that such support is ‘pathetically poor compared to the lavish subsidy the nuclear industry has just received’.
The Hinkley plans call into question the governments priorities, and suggests they are more concerned with securing big business and continued profit for energy corporations in an increasingly dysfunctional energy market, than with actually developing a longer-term sustainable solution that leaves both citizens and the planet more secure.