Eco-Design Energy Savings vs. 98 New Nuclear Reactors?

The renewal of the nuclear energy debate has spurred a great deal of discussion, not least as it has provided a pertinent and powerful comparison for those promoting energy efficiency and savings – just how many nuclear power plants could we avoid building if we met various EU targets and directives?

The sun has set on easy energy choices. Image (cc) Michael Kirste

One reaction to the nuclear crisis in Japan has been that if this is as bad as it gets, in the face of one of the most cataclysmic events nature can throw at us, then nuclear’s low carbon and climate-mitigating credentials outweigh other harm.

Many people who by no means love the prospect of nuclear energy, are nonetheless asking what are our alternatives? More new coal, with as yet unproven (on a commercial scale) Carbon Capture and Storage (CSS) technology? More biofuels? But biofuels or “agrofuels”have serious human rights and social consequences, especially relating to food security, as well as the effects of Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) often making their production and use a net greenhouse gas emitter. Oil and gas that comes not only with climate baggage, but a history bundled up with conflicts, undemocratic regimes, systematic human rights abuses, unjust and unequal distribution of wealth from the extractive industries? Wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, wave, hydroelectric? Yet there seems to be increasing social acceptance that such renewables are unable, or too costly, to meet all our energy desires.

Nothing is perfect: all of our energy choices are difficult.

Which is precisely why energy savings, via increased energy efficiency and a reduction from the demand side, are of paramount importance. If the EU’s 2009 Eco-design Directive were to be implemented fully, the end-use energy savings by 2020 could alleviate the need for another 98 Fukushima-sized nuclear reactors. The more energy we save – the less energy we waste using inefficient products, and the fewer energy-using appliances we buy and use – the fewer of these dilemmas we face.

Reduction in demand, energy efficiency and savings cannot change the fact that difficult choices lie ahead. But they will certainly put us in a far better position from which to make these decisions, one where it is necessary to make fewer of the kind of choices between bad and worse.

Offshore wind could turn the UK into a net energy exporter. Image Flickr (cc) phault

What’s more, the scepticism that renewables could ever pull enough weight in our energy supply is often severely overplayed; a recent UK-based study, The Offshore Valuation, found that:

In harnessing 29% of the practical offshore renewable resource by 2050:
• the electricity equivalent of 1 billion barrels of oil could be generated annually, matching North Sea oil and gas production and making Britain a net electricity exporter;
• carbon dioxide reductions of 1.1 billion tonnes would be achieved by the UK between 2010 and 2050 – a major contribution towards 2050 climate targets;
• 145,000 new UK jobs could be created by industry.

The knee jerk reaction that renewables, such as wind energy, are too expensive and rely too heavily on government subsidies ignores the fact that nuclear energy, this seemingly “unavoidable” evil, is the most heavily subsidized energy source in history. UK taxpayers currently subsidise nuclear directly to the tune of more than £1bn (€1.14) per year, and far more indirectly via decommissioning and insurance (it is estimated to cost at least £73 billion (€83 bn) to decommission the UK’s 19 aging nuclear plants).

So, when the calls for energy-efficient appliances, buildings and transportation choices start to wear you down, just remember the bigger picture: the total energy savings that you are contributing to are reducing the need for these difficult decisions, reducing the need to consider new nuclear power near you.

About Rachel Tansey

Rachel was a QCEA Programme Assistant on Sustainable Energy Security between November 2010 and November 2011.


  1. (Corrected version)

    “UK taxpayers currently subsidise nuclear directly to the tune of more than £1bn (€1.14) per year…”

    I’m not sure that is a very powerful argument. Offshore wind is more expensive.

    Also, it’s not correct to say:

    “nuclear energy…is the most heavily subsidized energy source in history.”

    Feed-in tariffs for domestic solar PV must surely take the prize as the most generous subsidy per kWh.

  2. The main argument in this post is that the demand side is as important as the supply side. QCEA argues that energy efficiency and savings, changing the vector of final demand, away from excessive and often wasteful consumption of resources and energy, are of paramount importance.

    What’s more, nuclear energy – over its history – has been the most heavily subsidized energy source (it has, after all, been around commercially a lot longer than wind and solar). Existing subsidies, and feed-in tariffs, vary between individual countries, and it may well be that at this point in time, in the UK example, solar PV gets more than nuclear, per kWh.

    The ultimate argument for wind, or solar, is of course not an economic one, it is the environmental necessity of reducing CO2 emissions and doing the utmost to combat climate change. At the same time finding new ways to meet our energy needs (not, necessarily, our demands), that don’t incorporate other, unacceptable wastes and risks (here, I am thinking of nuclear).

  3. OK, the cost of nuclear energy is not the main point of the post. But, if an effective argument against nuclear energy is to be constructed, it has to be on the basis of “unacceptable wastes and risks”, not the costs of future deployments (existing liabilities as well as past expenditure are irrelevant – in accounting terms they would be described as “sunk” costs).

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