Consumers and Citizens: the Political Economy of Nuclear Power

Gordon MacKerron, SPRU, University of Sussex

Nuclear power is the most political of energy technologies, and is also of high economic significance, with large and lumpy investment requirements.  Consumers – at least household consumers – cannot directly engage with new nuclear projects.  But there are important consumer issues.

This dialogue session would:
engage with potentially conflicting interests between different consumer groups – namely industrial consumers, who are broadly in favour of nuclear investment, and domestic consumers, who will probably alone shoulder the higher bills that projects like Hinkley Point will bring.
ask whether different financial arrangements for future projects, as suggested by the National Audit Office, are likely to benefit consumers of all kinds
consider whether new, smaller scale nuclear technologies might avoid some of the economic difficulties of big reactor projects
broaden the debate on nuclear power beyond consumers, to issues of citizens and their potential engagement with nuclear power, including issues of reactor siting, greenhouse gas emissions and radioactive waste.

In more detail

Domestic consumers have no direct engagement with nuclear power, though they have an interest in having cheap and secure energy available to them.  But there are also industrial consumers, such as the EIUG, who support nuclear power.  And wider industrial interests, for instance the CBI, are also positive about nuclear power, in this case more as representative of UK contractors who benefit from nuclear construction.  But nuclear power as currently configured is expensive and risky and there may be a conflict between the interests of industrial consumers, who will aim to avoid above-market prices for nuclear electricity, and domestic consumers, who may have to bear all the excess costs themselves.

Various ways are being suggested to reduce nuclear power costs to consumers. Two main avenues have been suggested.  The first is that Government, with its lower cost of capital, might more directly engage in financing nuclear power, though with correspondingly higher risks to consumers if costs escalate. The second is that a new generation of Small Modular Reactors could be developed domestically, potentially reducing costs and also offering an export opportunity for UK industry.

Finally, given that domestic consumers cannot engage directly with a centralised, top down technology like nuclear power, do they have a role as citizens, whether in relation to the siting of reactors, to low-carbon technologies and as potential host communities for radioactive waste?<

This dialogue session would invite participation from representatives of industrial energy consumers, from the National Audit Office, from the nuclear supply chain and from academics involved in the economics of nuclear power and in issues of citizen engagement with infrastructure technology.

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