Lib Dem Voice have put a poll asking Lib Dems to vote on Huhne’s new nuclear stance. The party’s official line is that new nuclear power is not necessary to combat climate change, and is a danger in itself. Since starting work in the energy industry, I’ve realised that’s almost certainly daft. However, a lot of older activists are passionately opposed to nuclear power, and Huhne’s sop to them has been to say that new nuclear plants can be built – but that the state won’t subsidise them.

This is a good policy, although Huhne’s been lambasted from the right for it. We’re shutting down a lot of old plant – both nuclear and fossil fuelled – over the next ten years, and we have an energy deficit coming up. DECC’s Pathways document, released at the same time as Huhne’s Energy Statement, attempts to map out our options to overcome this, while ensuring that we reach our 2020 carbon reduction targets.

Politics: the Right on Energy

The right tends to love nuclear as a solution to carbon targets and the power gap – read the rantings of Roger Helmer MEP for a surprising instance of a Conservative praising the French way of doing things. The reasons given are typically economic – they believe nuclear is cheaper than any of the alternatives. The problem is that this nonsense – as I discuss on the Embrace blog. The cost of installing new nuclear capacity is above onshore wind, and comparable to offshore once the financing costs for nuclear are factored in. It’s therefore not clear that nuclear is cheaper – especially as the taxpayer is liable under treaty for the costs of a nuclear accident.

Sorry, let me say that again: the taxpayer is liable under treaty for the costs of a nuclear accident.

That’s quite a subsidy you’ve got going on there. I’m fairly sure the taxpayer wouldn’t have to pay the costs for a wind turbine falling over.

On that subject, the right loath wind turbines in particular, largely because they’re a totemic symbol of the green movement intruding on their rural idylls where they’ve been consuming resources happily for decades without reality intruding at all. Nuclear allows them to shove all that dirty ‘production’ somewhere out of site, so they can continue pretending that an economy based on ever-expanding consumption has no impact on the world. James Delingpole in particular has a weird pathological obsession with them, viewing them as some sort of Martian intruder into the Arcadian landscapes of his youth. In the north, we’ve been digging up our landscapes for centuries to power our industry. To me, views like Delingpole’s are several centuries out of date.

Mechanics of Energy

If we’re looking for the most economic solution to cross the power gap and reach our emissions targets, you can’t just say ‘Wind Turbines!’ or ‘Nukes!’. This is because powering the UK is an incredibly complicated business presided over by the unsung heroes of our day-to-day life, the National Grid. They have to deal with daily fluctuations in power demand of between 20-25GW (to put that in perspective, the biggest generator in the UK, Sizewell B, produces about 1.2GW). To do this, they need two broad types of power stations: baseload plants and ‘peaker’ plants. The baseload supply the electricity that’s constantly demanded – around 40GW. The ‘peaker’ plants supply electricity to meet peak demand – around 20-25GW, as mentioned. Different types of plant are easier to ramp up and down than others – for example, gas can be switched on and off very fast, while it’s unsurprisingly difficult to tone down a nuclear reactor. The French model Roger Helmer advocates uses 80% nuclear, requiring some of their nuclear plants to run in ‘load-following’ mode, which is difficult and expensive to achieve. They have to do this because putting too much power into the grid at once would produce an effect analogous to a power surge in your house, except across the entire country. It has to be carefully balanced – which is why I said National Grid really were unsung heroes.

Even with load-following nuclear plant, the French regularly dump a lot of their excess electricity onto international markets to avoid overloading the grid – there’s a 1.2GW pipe under the Channel they use to give us electricity. They can do this because they’re heavily interconnected with their neighbours, reducing the risk of overload. We’re not. No-one serious is taking Roger Helmers’ position.

Wind turbines are good for peak power – their seasonal & daily output broadly follows demand trends, with a significant amount of variability. However, because they’re variable, they’re less good at satisfying peak demand. Typically they’re balanced with fast reserve plant, like gas.

You should be able to see the outline of a future energy mix from the above, and this is what I suspect Huhne’s policy is aiming at. Nuclear will receive a subsidy in the form of a carbon tax that will make all low carbon sources of electricity competitive. It will receive the mammoth public liability subsidy that no-one likes to talk about. It probably won’t get an additional subsidy along the lines of renewable energy. If it’s economic after all this, it will be built – but those building it will probably be required to set up a special bond for decommissioning, to pay the eventual clear-up costs. Something similar is required of mining projects, and constitutes a good model for dealing with economically useful but environmentally damaging projects.

How then should I vote?

Go for the top option on the poll – nuclear has enough subsidy to be built with the carbon tax and liabilities factored in. Reserve the right to change your mind if a privately-funded decommissioning bond isn’t required. In that event, a massive expansion of renewables is the most cost-effective option.

Isn’t telling people how to vote on a poll illiberal?

Yes. But so are blackouts. They constrain your ability to choose to have the lights on.

Anti-Trident campaigners should today be lauding George Osborne, who has knocked back Liam Fox’s claim that the capital costs for the replacement of Trident would be met from outwith the defence budget. This makes it much more likely that Trident will not be replaced at all – Fox knows that in order to find the £20billion of capex a replacement would require, he’d face a very public drubbing from generals who have previously questioned the system’s usefulness in maintaining our security and fulfilling the operational requirements of current and future conflicts.

The reasoning behind this is very simple. Trident is a system intended to provide an unpredictable and undetectable launch platform for sophisticated multi-warhead ICBMs capable of overwhelming conventional missile defence systems surrounding a major city or substantial military installation. It was developed in response to an enemy with a global strike capability and potentially overwhelming conventional forces. Such an enemy no longer exists – the only nation that currently falls into this category is the United States, and unless there’s a (very) hidden undercurrent of anti-Americanism in the pro-nukes camp, the USA doesn’t count as a reason to retain Trident.

Let’s consider any potential future conflicts. The key consideration is the development of a global strike capability by a potentially hostile power – the only obvious player here is China. China, while being somewhat belligerent in its immediate neighbourhood in response to historical territorial disputes, has not ventured to expand its sphere of influence and its global capabilities much beyond its immediate naval boundaries. It has not sought to secure military bases in the Western hemisphere at all – its main activities outside its borders are almost exclusively focused on the peaceful aquisition of economic assets, although this is no reason to believe that there is no potential for proxy conflict over resources in, say, Africa as a consequence of this acquisition drive.

However, in order to constitute a threat, China would need its current source of economic growth to be something other than exporting goods to the West. As it converts to a consumption-based economy, this may yet become the case – but even if it achieves this, it merely heightens the possibility of proxy resource wars rather than global conflict. I would therefore say that China does not constitute a reason to retain Trident.

The outstanding potential enemies is therefore reduced to those in possession of potentially overwhelming conventional forces – here I interpret ‘overwhelming’ as ‘Would as a minimum involve five years of nasty to-ing and fro-ing.’ The top of the scale is set by Russia, while the middle ranks are stuffed with middle eastern countries. Russia has reacquired its tendency towards belligerence, and there is the strong possibility of conflict in the rapidly melting Arctic ocean. It has aspirations towards – as a minimum – European leadership, and will undoubtedly use force again to preserve its influence in what it regards as its back yard.

However, Russia has lost its global strike capability, and outside its backyard is less belligerent than playground bully. It seeks the approval of its peers, and appears to recognise the importance of economic factors over hard power in achieving this. Binding Russia further into the European economy will substantially reduce the chances of Russian tanks sweeping over the plains of eastern Europe. Economic ties will deter agression far more than Trident ever could.

It’s the Middle Eastern states that present the most interesting challenge, and the greatest potential for a conflict in which we’d actually use nukes. This is because of their recently-acquired ability to use terrorism as a proxy for a global strike capability. In the event of a Middle Eastern state knowingly releasing a biological agent in London, say, the necessity of conflict would be unavoidable. Furthermore, conflict would be necessarily punitive in nature – the public clamour at the actions of a hostile state in killing hundreds of thousands of its citizens would require it.

Against a sufficiently large state, a conventional response would not be sufficiently punitive, and there would be a clamour to use nuclear weapons – a clamour it may be difficult to resist. Using Trident would result in the cities of that state being reduced to a smouldering radioactive wasteland, as well as worldwide condemnation.

There is another way. Replacing Trident with nuclear-tipped ‘smart’ missiles like the ridiculously bombastically named StormShadow system would allow us to overcome significant conventional forces with the minimum of losses to our side, providing a significant deterrent to those regimes most likely to actually launch an attack on our shores. The strongest objection against this proposal is that it’s easier to shoot down missiles like the StormShadow than Trident’s ICBMs – but this rather assumes that our opponents have effective missile defences. I invite you to compare our guided missile capabilities against our potential foes.

In summary, there is no short to medium term prospect of conflict with a power sufficient to require Trident as a deterrent – but there is a short to medium term prospect of conflict with powers we can deter with cheaper methods. The generals knows this, which is why Trident is unlikely to survive any future review of defence spending in its current form. Thank you, George Osborne!