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French nuclear safety issues highlight energy vulnerability

On 7 November 2015, the average price of a megawatt hour of electricity in the UK was £38.10.  On 7 November 2016, that same megawatt hour of electricity rose to more than £1,000 for supply companies not tied into forward contracts and to around £150 for those who were.

The reason for the price spike, according to Jamie Doward in the Guardian was that:

“Safety concerns at France’s nuclear power plants operated by the energy company EDF have led to many reactors being temporarily shut down. There have been similar suspensions in Belgium. In addition, a lack of rain in Norway and Sweden – whose hydro plants generate large amounts of electricity for their European neighbours – has limited both countries’ energy production.”

Nuclear power has provided France’s electricity baseload for several decades.  However, as other European states have shifted from coal – and in Germany’s case nuclear too – to renewables, we have become increasingly dependent upon France’s aging fleet of nuclear power stations to help us meet demand.  Last week’s safety shutdown merely serves to highlight just how dependent on imported energy the UK has become.

Nor is French nuclear the UK’s only energy Achilles Heel.  More than half of our electricity is generated in gas power stations; using gas that we also depend upon to heat our buildings and to cook our food.  UK domestic gas production is less than a third of output at the turn of the century, and unless fracking proves to be viable on a large scale in the near future, the UK will find itself increasingly dependent upon gas piped in from Russia (who the government are currently going out of their way to antagonise) and the Middle East (where the government is doing its bit to destabilise the very countries that provide or transport the gas we need).

Less obviously, we have also seen the potential vulnerabilities in domestic renewable energy generation.  Although the UK continues to build off shore wind capacity, electricity from wind has fallen significantly in 2016 because of a shift in the jet stream bringing lighter than expected wind speeds.  Solar generation is up a little – but at this time of year, the sun is too low in the sky to take up the slack.

Our domestic nuclear industry supplies around 17 percent of our electricity.  But even this has only been achieved by extending the operation licenses on ageing power stations that should have already closed.  This leaves the UK vulnerable to the same kind of safety issues that just stopped French nuclear in its tracks.

The sad reality is that successive UK governments since the 1980s have failed to invest in the development of a modern energy mix; preferring instead to leave it to the (largely artificial) market.  The result is that the main focus of policy has been on lowering energy costs, even though this made it even harder for energy companies to invest in new infrastructure.  UK businesses and households are about to reap that particular whirlwind in the form of higher energy prices and, sooner or later, energy shortages.

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