U.K. Atomic Energy Authority's Judge discusses challenges to nuclear new build

As Congress contemplates the role of nuclear power in the United States' future energy policy, the United Kingdom faces similar challenges and debates relating to nuclear new build. During today's OnPoint, Lady Barbara Judge, chairwoman of the United Kingdom's Atomic Energy Authority, discusses the country's strategy for expanding its use of nuclear power to increase energy independence and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She addresses some of the fundamental issues facing nuclear new build and also explains how nuclear power will contribute to emissions reduction goals.


Monica Trauzzi: Welcome to the show. I'm Monica Trauzzi. Joining me today is Lady Barbara Judge, chair of the United Kingdom's Atomic Energy Authority. Lady Judge, thank you for coming on the show.

Lady Barbara Judge: It's a real pleasure.

Monica Trauzzi: The U.K. is taking some big steps to improve its energy security and a key component in the U.K.'s energy strategy is the push for nuclear new build. What is the U.K.'s plan for the expansion of nuclear power in the short and long term?

Lady Barbara Judge: Well, we clearly believe now, and it's been a journey, we first were talking to Blair and then we were talking to Brown about the fact that new build has to be part of the mix, that really, if you want to deal with energy security, do we have enough energy, energy independence, where does it come from, climate change, are we going to have a world that's fit for our grandchildren, nuclear which is proven technology has to be back. And the plan is actually different from the U.S., is that we're going to hopefully get the private sector to finance the new build, but that we will set up a framework in order to make sure that that private sector has a good chance to get it working. We're changing the planning regulations. We're encouraging the industry to get tooled up for a new build and we're trying very hard to make the atmosphere receptive to new build and not to make it a political issue.

Monica Trauzzi: It is a political issue though and it is here in the U.S. as well. Should this new build occur to the detriment of other technologies, other alternatives, talking about wind, solar, other forms of energy or is there room for everyone?

Lady Barbara Judge: Well, we think there's definitely room for everything. We think you need everything. We think you need coal, we think you need oil, we think you need gas, we think you need renewables and you need nuclear. Frankly, if you think about what's happening in the U.K., when I came to the U.K. 16 years ago 20 percent of our energy was delivered by nuclear power. Now, if you just keep decommissioning nuclear power plants as we do, in 2020 only 2 percent will be delivered by nuclear and nobody has told me that we'd need 18 percent less energy then than we do now. And with the best will in the world, renewables, which we are investing heavily in, cannot fill that gap. We need to have every source of energy as we possibly can.

Monica Trauzzi: Will nuclear though have a significant enough impact on emissions reduction in order to warrant the cost? I mean this is expensive. Is it going to have enough emissions benefits?

Lady Barbara Judge: Well, it depends how much nuclear you build as to how much benefit it will have, but I think it's more than that. I think the fact is that nuclear is baseload generation. When you turn on lights it's always there. If you look at renewables, they're very good when the sun shines if it's solar, very good when the wind blows if it's wind, but sometime you're going to have a dark, cold, still night and you're going to have to have a generator behind those windmills. Whereas nuclear, once you get it up and running, it is expensive, it has a very stable and low price for the energy that's generated. It doesn't gyrate like the price of oil, so we think it's really important to bring it back.

Monica Trauzzi: And what percentage of energy do you think should be provided by nuclear?

Lady Barbara Judge: If we could just keep to 20 percent that would be a good thing, but there are countries that believe you can go to 20 or 30 percent but I think if you had 20 percent nuclear there's room for all the different kinds of energy. It is not a zero-sum game. It's an ever expanding pie.

Monica Trauzzi: So, what are some of the fundamental issues in the U.K. to expanding nuclear? I know we were talking about education right before we came on.

Lady Barbara Judge: You're exactly right. The issues around nuclear, well, the first is planning, which we are addressing. Where do you put it? And we're changing the planning regime and actually we found that people vote with their feet. The ones around the existing power stations have not moved away. They understand that infrastructure, money, schools, jobs all come with a big plant, a big infrastructure project. The real problem, I think, is skills, is people. We don't have enough trained engineers. We don't have enough trained people to run the plant as well is to build them. When I was young, if you were very smart you would become an engineer and if you were a nuclear engineer even smarter. Today, if we do have engineers, we train them up in the bachelors' degree at engineers and then they send them off to get an MBA and they all become energy analysts. We want to get those engineers back to the plants. We want to raise the salaries of engineers and convince young people that that's the education job that they want, but it's going to take awhile.

Monica Trauzzi: There are also some transmission issues facing the U.K. for nuclear. Talk a bit about that and how costly that might be to actually get this energy transported throughout the country.

Lady Barbara Judge: Well, it's a grid. I mean we have a grid. We've been transmitting nuclear energy after all since the 50s and 60s. We're going to have to upgrade the grid in any case. I think the place where there are real transmission issues is not nuclear, it's renewables. Frankly, I think that's the problem with renewables, which I believe in, but there isn't batteries, there isn't storage for renewables and there's no grid for renewables. So, I think every kind of energy that we have now is going to take investment. There's no question about it and the grid is going to be an investment problem for lots of energy. I think the question is and the question that we think about nuclear particularly is that it is a proven technology, you know? We're spending money proving the renewable technology and it's well spent, but here we have a technology that's been going for 50 years and it's been improving all the time and that's very important.

Monica Trauzzi: Safety issues, that's one of the key elements to the debate here in the U.S. over nuclear. How big of an element is it in the U.K. debate?

Lady Barbara Judge: People believe, and I think it's right, that there hasn't been a major nuclear accident since Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. Now, actually, Chernobyl was an accident waiting to happen. It was old Russian technology. It wasn't well maintained. There was no containment mechanism on the top of the reactor, so when there was a problem everything went out. And then, as we all know, the Russians didn't tell anybody for a long period of time. Three Mile Island, Three Mile Island was not a failure. It was a success. When the problem happened in the reactor it shut down. There was a containment mechanism and nobody died. Nobody was even hurt; we just got a lot of lessons. The reason everybody made such a big deal out of it, as you might remember because you're so young, but there was this movie six weeks before with beautiful Jane Fonda which was an explosion of a nuclear reactor, six weeks before, so when there was a problem everybody went mad and it practically closed down the nuclear industry. But if you actually look at safety, frankly, 3000 people die on the roads in England every year. I'd rather walk around a nuclear reactor, thank you very much.

Monica Trauzzi: Looking ahead to December's international climate meeting in Copenhagen, what role should nuclear play in a post-Kyoto treaty? Should nuclear power count towards emissions cuts? What role should it play in an offsetting scheme?

Lady Barbara Judge: That's a really good question. I believe that nuclear, although not renewable technically, is clean energy. It's clean energy. It does not emit carbon. I think nuclear should be included within the renewables propositioned so that when we have to deal with what we hope will be the goals of Copenhagen, the amount of renewable energy is added to the amount of nuclear energy to meet those goals.

Monica Trauzzi: You mentioned it would take about 12 years for a plant to become up and running. What do you do in the interim until we have these new nuclear plants?

Lady Barbara Judge: It doesn't take 12 years to build it. It takes about five years to build it and practically it could take two or three years to get the technology reviewed, so you could do it in as little as eight years. The reason I said 12 years is because that's what people have been talking about. But if you look at Abu Dhabi, just by chance, their reactor they think is going to start working by 2017. Now, I went yesterday to a meeting in London where we said, if we start now, we could get up by 2016. But you're right, in the interim we have to find a method for clean coal. We have to find a method for oil. We have to find a method for gas. We have to use our great coal resources because they're here. We have to deal with the renewables and put money into them. We have to do everything. We have to keep everything on the table because the world continually needs more energy.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, we're going to end it right there. Thank you for coming on the show and thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

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