Sir David King, former chief scientist and champion of the nuclear newbuild, says the top priority must be to develop storage for renewable energy, reports Geoffrey Lean
Barristers, it is said, should never ask witnesses questions unless they already know the answers. Journalists, by contrast, do best by seeking to elicit information that they genuinely do not know. But the other evening I found myself getting a wholly unexpected answer to a question which I had expected would produce a predictable one.
The occasion was a scintillating lecture by Prof Sir David King, the former government Chief scientist, put on by Ashden, the charity that runs the eponymous energy awards. That’s not an adjective I apply often to talks, but I was riveted as David ranged over subjects from population growth to water resources, the growth of cities to commodity prices, spewing out new information and insights.
But while he said a lot about the promise of renewable energy, he said almost nothing about nuclear power – despite for long having been one of its foremost and most influential advocates in Britain, describing it, for example, as a “massive economic opportunity” for the country.
So I got up and asked him about it, expecting the same pro-nuclear response as I had heard from him many times before. Instead he amazed me by suggesting that Britain “might well” be able to do without atomic power altogether, and that the real priority should be on developing ways of storing electricity so as to be able to depend on famously intermittent sun and wind.
“We have to keep reassessing the situation”, he said. “I believe that what we need, more than anything, is a surge of activity to develop energy storage capability …. Once we can do that technologically, why would we not just keep with renewables.”
For a country like India, with plenty of sunlight and deserts where it can be collected, he went on, “there’s no reason” for it not to go “directly wholesale into solar energy”. After all it was already “three to four times” cheaper to provide villages unconnected to the grid in India and China with solar electric panels and batteries than to connect them up.
In countries like Britain and Japan, with less space and sun, he added, “it was difficult to see that we’re going to reach a position where we don’t want nuclear energy”, and in that case he favoured the small “modular nuclear reactors” recently advocated by the former environment secretary, Owen Paterson. But later he came back to the question and corrected himself: “if we can get the costs down we might well manage our future basically on renewable energy and energy storage”.
Which raised an interesting thought. In recent years there have been several much publicised conversions of former opponents of nuclear power – like columnist and activist George Monbiot, and former Greenpeace executive director Stephen Tindale – to supporting it. Could this be the first example of a powerful nuclear advocate going, at least partially, the other way?
Back in 2005 George wrote a typically trenchant column attacking David as “our own nuclear salesman” and suggesting he had “political reasons” for trying to sell new nuclear power stations. Which all goes to show just how unexpected life can be…