When it comes to understanding the true nature of Net Zero by 2050, I have one huge request: could everybody please stop flourishing their particular ‘get out of jail free’ cards – whether that’s a nuclear card, or a hydrogen card, or a 100% renewable electricity (100% RE) card.

There are no get out of jail free cards. We’re trapped in an energy-intensive way of life, driven by frenetic consumerism, causing massive damage to both people and the planet, and putting at risk the very future of humankind. There is no energy-based solution to this meta-impasse: the only way we’ll avoid an accelerating slide into civilisational collapse is by transforming that suicidal way of life.

Energy is a sub-system of that much bigger economic system – though it is, to be sure, the most important sub-system. And the most important aspect of that sub-system is EFFICIENCY.

Whatever combination of supply-side options we may have settled on by 2050, it’s the efficiency with which we acquire and use every one of those units of energy which matters most – not whether those units are renewable, nuclear or hydrogen. I find it deeply disturbing that almost all supply-side evangelists (whatever their fix may be) fail to mention this. Could that be because it’s so much harder to make money out of what Amory Lovins first referred to more than 40 years ago as ‘Negawatts’ (ie avoiding energy use altogether through efficiency and demand management) than it is out of generating Megawatts?

This article focuses on the nuclear get out of jail free card. But before ripping that to shreds, I want to do the same, in passing, for the 100% RE card.

When it comes to Net Zero strategies, I’m fully on board with the imperative of electrifying everything we possibly can (generation, heat, transport, manufacturing etc), and then ensuring that as close to 100% of that required supply should come from renewables. However, the environmental footprint associated with such a dramatic transition in our energy systems is enormous – and it concerns me that so many 100% RE evangelists fail to recognise this.

Question: what do solar panels, wind turbines, electric motors, batteries, magnets, heat pumps, LEDs, electrolysers and so on (as well as all the ‘enabling’ technologies on which this hardware depends such as computers, smartphones, smart meters, massive server farms and so on) all have in common? Answer: an increasing dependence on digging up the Earth for a variety of still abundant raw materials (lithium, vanadium, graphite, platinum and so on), for what are called ‘rare metals’ (cobalt, tungsten, tantalum etc), and for an even rarer family of 17 ‘rare earths’ with incredible magnetic, catalytic and optical properties, most with beautiful poetic names which you won’t even have heard of. But without which there is no 100% RE revolution.

And when you realise that 95% of those rare earths are mined in China, and that China controls an even greater share of the production of all rare metals, not just in China but around the world, with an already horrendous environmental and social balance sheet, we have to be very concerned indeed about the massive projected increase in demand for these raw materials on which a 100% RE scenario depends.

Consider for a moment the unfolding drama around the death of the Internal Combustion Engine – which everyone now accepts is a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’. Both governments (including the UK, with its accelerated timetable to ban the sale of petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030) and the big car companies (in both the West and in China) are now on that path. The future of ground-based transport is all-electric.

So let’s celebrate that – not least from the perspective of improved air quality. According to the latest research, tailpipe emissions are a massive contributor to the deaths of more than eight million people every year.[i]

But we still have to be realistic about what this entails. An EV in China (where roughly 60% of electricity is still generated in coal-fired power stations) is not as big a decarbonising deal as people imagine, especially when transmission losses are taken into account. And every new EV still requires a huge amount of raw materials and energy in its manufacture.

From a Net Zero, thermodynamically-literate point of view, we should already be thinking about setting a date for reducing the number of privately-owned vehicles from today’s 1.1 billion (of which only about 3% are currently EVs) to as low a level as possible. That’s the transition we should really be planning for; instead, we just take it for granted that the number of car sales will just tick up every year.

This is a huge challenge. To make it even remotely acceptable, from a political point of view, all subsidy and public sector investments should be directed into integrated mobility systems, better public transport and improved pedestrian and cycling infrastructures. Just like Negawatts offer an infinitely superior way forward than Megawatts (of any description), so an NV strategy (No Vehicles) is an infinitely superior way forward than an EV strategy.

All that said, we’re still going to need a huge increase in the amount of electricity required to get to Net Zero, and that’s where nuclear industry leaders play their own get out of jail free card with growing enthusiasm – principally because they continue to assert that it’s simply not possible to get to a Net Zero world by relying on efficiency, renewable electricity, storage and smart grids. That assertion is hotly contested by a growing number of academics and NGOs[ii], whose case gets stronger as both solar and wind get cheaper and more reliable, with improving utilisation rates every year, especially from offshore wind. Even the International Energy Agency now acknowledges the impact of this unfolding revolution, even as it keeps on having to revise its projections for renewable electricity’s share of total global generation – with what has become deeply embarrassing regularity.

There are few (if any) independent commentators forecasting a similar increase in nuclear-generated electricity. The bottom line here is very simple: large-scale nuclear reactors have essentially been priced out of the market. Very high construction costs are invariably exacerbated by extensive delays, ensuring that private investors will have nothing to do with new nuclear. No reactors are being constructed anywhere in the world without massive government subsidy – the exact opposite of renewables where ‘subsidy-free’ solar and wind are becoming the norm in different countries all around the world.

Faced with that market reality, the nuclear industry continues to argue that subsidy for nuclear power is still a necessary use of taxpayers’ money because only nuclear can provide the kind of baseload power on which the stability of electricity grids depends. This was once absolutely correct, but no longer. Back in 2015, the then Chief Executive of the National Grid, Steve Holliday, spelled out the writing on the wall for those still looking backwards rather than forwards in terms of energy systems: ‘The idea of large power stations for baseload is outdated.’

Because nuclear power can’t be switched on and off, the National Grid’s historical distribution system is based on an ‘always on’ assumption for nuclear. As more and more variable renewable electricity becomes available, the costs of this highly inflexible baseload become more apparent. In both Germany and the UK, it is commonplace for there to be more electricity available than is needed – meaning that operators of those windfarms and solar installations have to be paid to switch them off. As is persuasively argued by the International Energy Agency, power system flexibility is now an absolute priority if we are to reap the full benefits of more decentralised generation and demand management technologies. And it’s been convincingly demonstrated by the UK’s National Infrastructure Commission that large-scale nuclear power plants entrench more costly, inflexible distribution systems.

I see this as a classic case of incumbent technology standing in the way of more innovative solutions to the challenge of achieving a Net Zero economy, locking in consumers and businesses to increasingly outmoded ways of providing energy services.

Large-scale nuclear power has the same sort of 20th century feel to it as the Internal Combustion Engine: no longer necessary and increasingly unaffordable. But the industry is nothing if not adaptable, and has been busy crafting a whole deck of alternative get out of jail free cards: Small Modular Reactors (SMRs), Advanced Nuclear Reactors, and even a variation on the industry’s favourite card of all: nuclear fusion! Boris Johnson is particularly enamoured of these alternatives, and remains committed to investing hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ pounds into these still speculative propositions.

In a way that has become standard for all ‘nuclear renaissance’ announcements, the level of hype around SMRs keeps on ratcheting up. In the UK, we’re told that a prototype will be ready by 2029, creating 6,000 jobs over the next five years; that this prototype will be delivered at a bargain basement cost of £2.2bn; that it will be the first of a programme of 16 SMRs rolling off a production line at two a year; that this will earn the UK economy more than £50bn, and will in time create a massive export potential of around £250bn, creating 40,000 jobs over 15 years.

No other industry is allowed to get away with such fantastical moonshine! The reality is that there’s no design available as yet, even though the Government has already invested millions in Rolls-Royce’s outline plans. There are no agreed sites for deployment. There are no customers, and without the Government guaranteeing an order book of up to 16 SMRs, it’s highly unlikely that Rolls-Royce will even complete the design phase, let alone start investing in such an ambitious production line.

It fascinates me to see the dogged determination (desperation?) with which politicians hang on to these still entirely unproven technologies – all of which have been ‘in design’, in one way or another, over many decades. What is it (ideologically and psychologically) that allows them to go on preferencing speculative nuclear innovation, with breakthroughs promised at some indeterminate point in the future, over the burgeoning pipeline of market-ready innovation in solar, wind, storage, grids, demand management and so on?

And what is it that allows them to stay so complacent about the problems of nuclear waste and decommissioning – which I explore in some detail in ‘Net Zero Without Nuclear’? The fact that the only proposed ‘solution’ for the management of high-level nuclear waste is a Geological Disposal Facility (which will not be fully operational here in the UK until 2075, according to the Government itself), probably explains why the nuclear get out of jail free card includes no icons for nuclear waste, nor any reference to the price-tag of £130bn for decommissioning existing reactors here in the UK over the next 85 years, according to the Government’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority.

The vast majority of environmentalists I’ve known and worked with over 45 years are passionate about the concept of justice between generations as well as justice within each generation. However, the simple truth of it is that anyone who continues to support nuclear power has, in effect, set aside that concern about intergenerational justice. It’s young people, as future taxpayers, who will bear the massive costs associated with the processing and storage of nuclear waste, as well as the ongoing liabilities regarding the decommissioning of existing reactors.

With the best will in the world, that’s how new nuclear looks to me today. No longer necessary. Increasingly unaffordable. Morally indefensible. So let’s tear up that nuclear get out of jail free card.

However, as I’ve already said, we should simultaneously be tearing up the 100% RE card. In terms of delivering a Net Zero economy, 100% RE is undoubtedly the way to go – but not as some heedless technofix that allows politicians to continue to avert their eyes from the much deeper, systemic problems that now confront humankind.

[i] https://www.seas.harvard.edu/news/2021/02/deaths-fossil-fuel-emissions-higher-previously-thought
[ii] https://www.nrc.gov/docs/ML1006/ML100601133.pdf
This blog was first published by Earth.org on 27 May 2021: https://earth.org/getting-real-about-net-zero-by-jonathon-porritt/