29 March 2022

Nimbys go nuclear – how selfish homeowners will scupper Net Zero

By

I hate to say I told you so. I really do – we are long past the point where being right about the Nimbys killing off this or that plan to improve this country delivered even the smallest thrill. 

Nonetheless, in light of the news that Boris Johnson’s plan to kick-start British nuclear energy risks getting scuppered by homeowners, I can only dredge up what I wrote for this site last August:

‘But our domestic capacity to build nuclear power stations is all but gone – Rolls Royce, proud maker of submarine engines, is about it. They’re making a push to develop a new generation of smaller reactors that could be rolled out across the country, but who really thinks a country which can’t build a railway or airport runway is going to pull off ‘local nuclear’?’

Lo and behold, The Sun reports that ‘Boris Johnson faces a major backlash after it emerged his favoured mini nuclear power plants need to be built near homes to work’.

These ‘mini nuclear plants’ – properly known as Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) – are about the size of a football stadium. Each can power about a million homes and heat their water too. 

Even better, unlike huge traditional plants we actually seem to have the technology to build them here in the UK. That means we don’t need to invest decades in regaining sovereign capacity, or rely on world leaders such as the Chinese or, er… Russia.

Better still, if SMRs do work then a domestic rollout could help Rolls Royce bring the technology to maturity and prepare them for exporting it to friendly nations overseas, which would not only help to boost Western efforts to wean ourselves off oil-rich despotisms but also provide a major boost to British industry.

Unfortunately, this plan would involve building infrastructure near homes. And there will be many people, some doubtless with Ukrainian flags in their handles, who’d rather we sent billions to Moscow for gas than have their view spoiled or house price dented.

It therefore seems very likely that this new nuclear network will go the same way as HS2: pared back, late, and vastly over-budget. That’s if it manages to avoid the fate of the new runway we need, which is to say it just gets talked about endlessly for the next ten years with nothing actually built.

The idea that protestors could actually stop something like a nuclear power station being built is, on the face of it, completely ridiculous. If the protests themselves were the problem then the Government would be well-advised to pass something like an Essential Infrastructure Bill, giving the police extra powers to ensure that work on ports, power plants, railways and so on was not disrupted.

But the real problem is likely not that these comfortable homeowners will chain themselves to the diggers, but that they’ll write to their MP, who will then start trotting out a variation on the normal Nimby theme: ‘yes to more [X], but not here!’

Short-sighted Conservative MPs have already gutted the Government’s proposals for long-overdue planning reform. They now have their sights on house-building numbers. Do we think they’re likely to sign up to a network of little Chernobyls and Fukushimas in their corners of this green and pleasant land?

Perhaps a more strategic and ruthless government could bypass this problem by concentrating the reactors in Labour seats. But they could also have done this with housing, and they didn’t. A Tory Party which lacks the wits to save the shires by building in London is probably not capable of the sort of strategic thinking involved.

In fact, it gets even worse. For the energy programme is not just likely to fall victim to NIMBYism – it must first do battle with that other great vice of British policymaking, ‘Treasury brain’. According to The Guardian:

‘Boris Johnson’s flagship energy strategy has been held up over a row with Rishi Sunak about funding a new generation of up to eight nuclear power stations costing the public more than £13bn.’

The Chancellor is reportedly worried that the plants are expensive. So what? Of course they are. New things cost money. This is precisely the sort of short-term, penny-pinching thinking which saw the UK shutter our offshore gas storage facility in 2017, thus leaving the public with no cushion against fluctuations in global prices.

Even more absurdly, Sunak is reportedly concerned that the high cost of the plants will push up energy bills, which implies that the Treasury wants to pass the costs onto householders in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis

Why? Even under the rules the Chancellor set out in his Budget speech, his goal was only to ensure that tax covered current spending. Borrowing for capital investment such as new nuclear power plants is surely allowable. Why on earth would you hike energy bills to do it?

Taken together, these stories point to the meme outcome: the Treasury hikes everyone’s household bills to pay for nuclear power stations which never get built, and the money ends up covering an increase in the Winter Fuel Allowance to buy off the boomers.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.