Last week the British government announced a deal with the French utility EDF over the construction of two new reactors at Hinkley Point in Somerset. It is the first new nuclear power station to be built in Great Britain in a generation, and it has drawn vigorous criticism from the environmental community. Nuclear power is not safe – see Chernobyl and Fukushima. There are unresolved problems such as nuclear waste. It undermines the future of renewable energy. And with a guaranteed price at twice the current market rate, nuclear electricity will be obscenely expensive. Rarely has the case against nuclear power been so easy to make.
From the historian’s point of view, there is even more ground for scepticism. After all, this is not the first time that we are getting a lousy deal on nuclear power. Since Fukushima, the risk of a nuclear meltdown is plain. But the history of nuclear power does not look much better if we look at it in purely economic terms.
Nuclear reactors are expensive to build, cheap to run, and expensive to dismantle. In other words, building a nuclear reactor means hedging a bet on energy needs for decades into the future, far more so than for fossil fuels and renewables. It is the kind of risk that corporations usually shun unless there is an emergency.
The 1950s and 1960s, when the first commercial reactors were built, were no such time. In the history of modern energy, these were the easy years: never before or since has energy been so little of a problem. Nuclear power was conceived and born in a world where profits were second-rate issues. Promoting nuclear energy was about cutting-edge technology and staying abreast in a science-based world. It was about visions of all things nuclear, culminating in plans for nuclear-powered airplanes that look like a bad joke nowadays. And it was about the bomb.
In the end, nuclear power became a very complicated way to heat water. For a high-tech project supposed to pave the way to the future, that was a pretty meagre result.
It is important to recall that the utilities – today the embodiment of nuclear power – were initially lukewarm about the new technology. They had good reasons. The economics of nuclear energy was highly uncertain as a result of lack of experience. Entrenched interests supported existing modes of power production. And in the fifties and sixties, there was no urgent power gap waiting to be filled.
But the utilities were negotiating with governments who dreamed about a coming nuclear age. Even more, governments had invested huge sums into nuclear research and development that they were hesitant to write off. That brought the utilities into a favourable position: they did not need reactors, but they knew that the government did. With that, they could ask for generous subsidies and other concessions. And they got them.
Which brings us to the negotiations that led to last week’s decision. For a scholar of nuclear history, they look terribly familiar. A clever strategy would have defined parameters for future energy goals, along with an invitation to submit ideas. It is unlikely that corporations would have come up with nuclear solutions by themselves – way too risky as a business proposition. But the government chose a different strategy. They announced that they wanted to build nuclear reactors. And then they sat down with companies that might fulfil their wish. Little wonder that EDF got such a great deal.
Environmentalists like to talk about nuclear risks, and every update from the Fukushima clean-up makes their case more convincing. But maybe narrow-minded capitalist thinking is just as good as an ally here. If we cannot get nuclear reactors unless we negotiate poorly and dish out huge subsidies, it’s probably bad business.
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