Wednesday, 15 February 2017

No we don't need any more nuclear power stations to power electric cars

Desperate to cover the latest catastrophic meltdown to hit the nuclear industry as Toshiba sinks under the weight of its failures to construct nuclear power plant through its Westinghouse subsidiary, nuclear supporters are spreading fake news about the alleged need for new nuclear power stations to power electric cars.

Last Saturday the Times published a headline stating 'Electric cars mean UK could need 20 new nuclear plants'. I organised the submission of a letter to the Times objecting to the headline. The letter has not been printed, although today they did carry a correction (lower left hand corner, page 26) that the headline ‘was a significant miscalculation based on a confusion of energy and power. We apologise for the mistake’.
Yet, the headline and story was repeated by The Mail on the very day the Times retracted it. See

Will the Mail also carry an apology? I doubt it. 

Of course, as could be expected, far from the Toshiba meltdown causing the UK Government to re-think its nuclear strategy, there are reports that the UK Government is now considering putting billions of pounds of taxpayers money at risk to prop up the failing Moorside nuclear project. Moorside is dependent on the AP1000 reactor design that has failed so miserably and catastrophically to be delivered in the USA (in South Carolina and Georgia). It has ruined Toshiba.  Up until now the Hinkley C project (to be developed by EDF) is relying on a 35 year payment of £92.50 in (2012 prices - now about £97/MWh) and on EDF being propped up by large infusions of cash from the French Government. 

The electricity consumer will have to pay for Hinkley C, but no more than £2 billion of taxpayers money is being risked as a guaranteed loan. But now people seriously expect the Government to step in as equity providers for Moorside where no company in the world would have the madness to risk their money without a Government guarantee to foot the bill.  Indeed the taxpayer plan to fund Moorside is likely to escalate so that tens of billions of pounds of taxpayers money could do down a nuclear black hole, as well as the electricity consumer paying over the odds for 35 years. See

It is surely madcap politics to take as a lesson from the fact that a technology is failing for the Government to re-double its efforts to back it - pouring tens of billions of money that could be spent on public services (that is already in very short supply) down the drain for power plant that may take several decades to be built.

Meanwhile of course wind and solar pv farms don't need any taxpayer money. They can be built at lower prices than nuclear power - but of course the Government is only now issuing contracts for nuclear power!

Paul Dorfman made some useful comment on the Toshiba meltdown at

See our letter below:


We are concerned about the highly tendentious headline ‘Electric cars mean UK could need 20 new nuclear plants’ (report February 11th). The story speculated about the need for increased electricity supply.

The headline implies dogmatically that increases in non-fossil generation can only come from nuclear power rather than green energy. Why not speculate instead about the number of windfarms, solar farms or energy efficiency measures needed?

The changing profile of UK electricity requires a flexible supply system based on variable renewable energy, storage, power plant reserves and responsive demand and charging systems - not outdated, inflexible and, so far, undeliverable nuclear power.

In the last 15 years renewable energy has expanded from around 3 per cent to what will soon be 30 per cent of UK electricity consumption. In the same period not a single nuclear power plant has come on line, nor is likely to at least until 2026, and even then only with luck and huge expense.


Corresponding signatory:
Dr David Toke, Reader in Energy Politics, University of Aberdeen, tel 07583568643, email:, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Aberdeen, Kings College, Aberdeen AB24 3QY

Jeremy Leggett, Solar Century, email:

Jonathon Porritt, Forum for the Future, email:

Professor Andrew Stirling, Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, email:

Professor (Emeritus) Dave Elliott, Department of Engineering and Innovation, Open University, email:

Tom Burke, Chairman, E3G, email:

Professor Mark Pelling, Department of Geography, Kings College London, email:

Professor Gordon Walker, Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, email:

Professor Jeffrey Henderson, Professor of International Development, University of Bristol, email:

Professor (Emeritus) Andrew Blowers, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Open University, email:

Professor (Emeritus) Bryan Wynne, Science Studies, Lancaster University, email:

Professor Mark Lemon, Institute for Energy and Sustainable Development, De Montford University, email:

Dr Alan Terry, Senior Lecturer in Geography, University of West of England, email:

Dr Philip Johnstone, Research Fellow, Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, email

Dr David Lowry, independent consultant email:

Dr Abhishek Agarwal, Senior Lecturer in Strategy and Policy, Robert Gordon University, email:

Dr. Gabor Sarlos,  Senior Lecturer,  University of Worcester, email:

Emily Cox, Associate Tutor, Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, email:

David Thorpe, Sustainability Author and Consultant, email:

Michel Lee, Senior Analyst, Promoting Health and Sustainable Energy, email

Dr Matthew Cotton, Lecturer, Department of Environment, University of York email:

Katherine Begg, email:

Dr Paul Dorfman, The Energy Institute, University College London, email:

Dr Ben Fairweather, Faculty of a Technology, De Montford University, email:

Dr Ian Fairlie, independent consultant, email:

Dr Matt Watson, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography, University of Sheffield, email:

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Will US force the UK to water down GM food rules in a Trade Deal with the USA?

Newspapers are already carrying stories about how the UK may be forced to accept GM food from the USA under a trade deal. But how realistic is this? The answer, ultimately, is probably no, but the probability is that the UK Government will start off by vacillating. This will re-ignite the British GM food controversies that exploded after the first US imports of GM food neared European shores in 1996.

American farmers will undoubtedly press the US Government to demand that the UK abandon EU rules about labelling of GM and to scrap rules which ban imports of milk and beef products from cows treated (in the US) with somatropin (BST). BST is a GM growth hormone enzyme that makes cows more 'productive'.

I actually doubt that the US will achieve a total victory here, although they might be offered some concessions.  The idea that consumers want to know if a food product is made from GM food is well entrenched in British consumer culture, and it is difficult to see how the UK Government could afford to row back from the labelling of GM foods, at least in principle. We should remember that it was the Daily Mail which campaigned vigorously against GM food in the late 1990s with tasty headlines such as 'Frankenstein Food Fiasco'.

There will be a lot of talk about how the UK will now be able to give authorisation to grow GM crops, but the fact is that the big retailers won’t stock anything that has to have a GM label. As a result there is little prospect of commercial GM farming in the UK starting anytime soon. In addition, a lot of US food cannot be sold in the UK since it contains GM food products and the US does not allow GM food to be labelled to allow supermarkets to know the difference between GM and non-GM US food.

It is perhaps even more unlikely that British politicians would be allowed to legalise imports of milk and beef from the US. There is plenty of evidence that cows treated with BST suffer adverse health effects, not least from the side-effects of increase in milk they are induced to yield, and the animal welfare lobby in the UK is, if anything, rather stronger in the UK than even (other) EU countries generally.

Ultimately the areas of conflict are likely to be what the trade negotiators will say are 'marginal' issues. But anti-GM food campaigners won't see it that way. You can see from the coverage of the run-up to the (now abandoned) attempts at a US-EU trade agreement and also the TPP (involving anti-BST Canada) that there were arguments about standards for testing how much GM food and BST milk there is in food imports from the USA. The UK will be under great pressure to water down the 'zero-tolerance' approach to food imports that demands certification on non-GM content that currently obtains under EU rules. The EU didn't give way in its negotiations, but will the Brits have the same resolve? Maybe, eventually, after some prodding from the Daily Mail and a campaign from environmental groups.

Another major point of controversy of course will be the adjudications mechanism used to decide disputes between the US and the UK in a bilateral trade agreement. The proposed EU-US trade deal fell down ultimately precisely on this point. Campaigners in Germany and other EU states pointed out that the adjudication mechanism would allow privileged access by multinational corporations to get their way over environmental and social legislation without any recourse to democratic accountability. Now, at first sight you'd expect the UKIPers under their 'take back control' slogan to involve rejection of such tyranny. Surely much worse than the EU which was at least subject to political pressure from democratically elected politicians? But no, because to some the 'take back control' slogan is but a cover for giving even more control over our lives to the corporations!

We can look forward to a big and long row about the UK-US trade deal!

David Toke is author of 'The Politics of GM Food' (2004, London: Routledge)


Monday, 9 January 2017

How Scotland could double the amount of low carbon electricity being generated for the same amount of consumer spending

A new report written by me has just been published by the Scottish Green Party on how spending on renewable energy rather than nuclear power will result in around twice as much low carbon electricity being generated . It explains how the Scottish Government could be given new powers to fund renewable energy out of the monies that Scottish consumers would otherwise have to pay for new nuclear power.


See Scottish Green Party press release

Executive Summary:

This report argues that the costs of delivering the UK s low carbon programme could be reduced substantially if the Scottish Government were given powers to fund its own renewable energy programme. This could be done by giving the Scottish Government control to spend money that would otherwise be added to Scottish electricity consumer bills to fund the Hinkley Point C (HPC) nuclear power plant (and any other new nuclear plant). UK electricity consumers will each have to spend around £16 a year extra for 35 years to pay for HPC. If Scottish consumer s money was spent on supporting renewable energy rather than paying for their share of Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant then, even on conservative calculations, nearly double the amount of electricity would be generated from wind power as from Hinkley C. The costs of onshore windfarms and also offshore windfarms even on current prices need much less support from consumer surcharges to generate an equivalent amount of electricity compared to HPC. Wind power costs are falling rapidly, with some especially low prices being reported in Denmark and The Netherlands. Under such a programme organised by the Scottish Government the cheapest onshore windfarms could start generating in 2020 and offshore windfarms organised under a new, Danish-style framework, could be online in 2026. The Scottish Government s own preference for renewable energy over nuclear power lends support to the suggestion that the Scottish Government should be able to use Scottish consumers money to pay for new renewable energy rather than new nuclear power. Moreover the best value for money for Scottish consumers in terms of generating non-fossil fuels is likely to come from the Scottish Government having powers to fund its own renewable energy programme from Scottish consumer bills. This is because the Scottish Government will be able to decide on what contract length to offer wind developers, for example offering to pay guaranteed prices for 20 years rather than 15 years as done by the Westminster Government now with renewable energy. Also, the Scottish Government will be able to organise a much more effective offshore windfarm programme than is being done by the Westminster Government. The Westminster Government s methods are increasing the costs of offshore wind by leaving too much uncertainty to be dealt with by developers. The Scottish Government could organise a much cheaper offshore wind programme on the lines done by the Danish Energy Agency. This is likely to lead to lower costs and less confrontation in the courts over planning issues than is the case with the current offshore windfarm programme.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Why leaving the EU is a bit like building nuclear power stations

Britain's efforts to leave the EU are a bit like trying to build nuclear power stations, that is it takes a lot longer than you expect, you're not quite sure it will actually happen and it is very expensive.

Of course we have to decide what Brexit actually means. Whatever the status of the 'have our cake and eat it' notes may be as reported in The Times this morning, this will be viewed as fantasy by many except if you take the Daily Mail very seriously. Leaving the EU could actually be much like Norway or Switzerland's position in that we take all of the rules, including rules on free movement of people. We just won't have any say on them. That'll mean we can whinge all we like with the absolute assurance that we can't do anything except shout at the foreigners rather than speak their language. A perfect English sereotype!

However the notion that we can leave and have some sort of Canadian-plus style of free trade agreement with the EU any time soon (as implied in the Times story) is stretching things too far. Like Hinkley C, such a thing might be possible in theory in many years to come, but in the near-term it is not going to happen. In terms of the EU a Swiss-type agreement is much more likely.
That's because trade deals take an awful long time to negotiate, and as we have seen with the EU-Canada agreement, are fraught with the difficulties of getting every EU nation to agree with it. It's taken 7 years to negotiate this agreement, and it is not finished yet.

Sure, the UK could agree a quickie-ish exit from the EU, within or around 2 years as stipulated in the much-mentioned article 50. That would be covered by the Article 50 injunction that a leaving deal would be agreed by a qualified majority in the EU. But the subsequent agreeement detailing trading relationships would have to wait, leaving the UK having to face trade tariffs in the (could be very lengthy) meantime.  The Government has already given assurances to British industry that this will not happen of course (Nissan, CBI etc). So what's to give?
Well, not the EU, since it is sticking very hard to the principle of free movement in its negotiations with Switerland who seem to be accepting a face-saving compromise in order to stay in the Single Market. So, logic has it that the UK might get a more speedy deal if it simply accepts a Swiss type deal, since that appears to be much more a la carte than much else on offer. The Government would trumpet that it has got a concession that British employers could, if they wanted, give British people first peiority in job appointments, but that would be all they could do apart from reinstate the social security chnages that were agreed by David Cameron.

Even that of course maybe looking on the hopeful side because that will enable an optimistic reading of what is possible within two years.

Of course you might say, and UKIP et al seem to be saying this, why not just leave and take the tariffs. Well, we're back to the assurances given to Nissan etc, which rules that out, and anyway business will riot (not a pretty picture). So using the chess analogy, the Government is in check, and can't get out of check within several years unless it concedes staying in the Single Market. The effective choices of the UK Government become reduced either to staying in the EU as we are at the moment under some temporary basis, or doing a Swiss or Norweigian style deal. Given that the Government does not want to go into a General Election in 2020 without any imminent prospect of leaving, the UK Government is in a very weak negotiating position. It will have to accept what is offered. A Swiss deal is almost certainly the best it will get (although there's plenty of Remainers who will still say that full membership is still best!).

Those are the rules of the game, and the only plausible way out of it is if the game, that is the EU, collapses in the meantime. Much as Nigel Farage seems to want this, the collapse of the euro at least is not something that anyone who has money in a bank would wish for.

Below (underneath the link to the Times article) is a link to a UK Government discussion of leaving the EU. see page 14 in particular

Monday, 14 November 2016

Why Trump might not make much of a difference to action on climate change

The election of Donald Trump probably means that, one way or another, the USA will pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, but this may make less difference to how much carbon the world would have emitted than what you might think.

For a start the Paris Agreement already has enough national states as signatures representing a high enough proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions to remain valid with a US withdrawal. The Agreement  requires there to be signatories representing at least 55 per cent of global emissions, and there's more than that left in the agreement without the USA.

Second, internally, such downwards pressure on carbon emissions as there is is mainly bound up with technological changes or policies that are likely to continue anyway. Coal consumption in the US has fallen by around a quarter since 2008, but. according to a recent paper published in The Electricity Journal this has very little to do with Obama, and almost all to do with the increased availability of cheap natural gas. The growth in production of shale gas has been the factor that has reduced the demand for coal and led to the closure of increasing numbers of ageing coal fired power plant. Another factor reducing coal use is the growth of renewable energy - mainly wind and solar. These technologies are promoted by a bi-partisan Congressional agreement on a policy of production tax credits (wind) and investment tax credit (solar). These will  decline in force and run out in 2020. However, many Republican Congressmen are relatively sympathetic towards renewable energy, and there are possibilities that some form of tax credit support could be renewed. The Republicans may not care much for the climate issue, but they are interested in helping people, including often the renewable energy industry, make money.

Certainly Trump is likely to want to short-circuit Obama's 'Clean Power Plan' which was being pursued through the aegis of the Environmental Protection Agency, although even here, many states will continue with their own clean power plans. Trump may order the reversal of the regulations restricting mercury and toxic emissions, compliance with which makes coal plant more expensive. However, as stated already, coal power plant are being retired without this measure anyway. In addition it is unlikely that the revision of standards to allow more mercury and toxic emissions will please many people given that the EPA estimates that otherwise between 4000 and 11000 people will die each year from poisoning by these toxics. Resistance to Republican initiatives to pare down environmental regulations may prove to be rather sturdier and more effective than the anti-environmentalists bargain for.

Third, there is the global impact of Trumps' protectionist trade strategies to consider. Trade restrictions on China, and quite possibly even the EU, may help relieve competitive pressure on some US industries, but they will, overall, make the world poorer. China's economy is less robust than it appears, with rising levels of bank debts and it is vulnerable to US pressures to increase the value of its currency. Indeed, my outlook is that there will be anything from a global slowdown in economic growth to a full-blown world economic meltdown. This of course, to a greater or lesser extent, will have a downward pressure on carbon emissions and probably more than offset the impact of Trumps's reversal of Obama's internal energy measures. On top of that of course, there are suggestions that the EU could impose a carbon tax on US imports to offset reductions in environmental performance by UK goods and services. This idea actually comes from Nicolas Sarkozy.

Some references:

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Why I was right to predict that UKIP would become the largest party

Some time before the EU referendum I predicted that a 'leave' vote would make UKIP the largest party. Well, I am very sad to admit that I was absolutely right. It's just that the Conservative Party has morphed into UKIP-lite.

My argument ran that as it became obvious that the UK could not simultaneously remain in the EU's Single Market for economic purposes and have solely British control over immigration rules then support would shift to UKIP and the Tories would split. What has happened is that the Government has stolen UKIP's clothes and is heading for chauvinism and economic isolation. There's a joke being made to Americans now. Why not come over and buy some property here? You'll get a nice house and change from $100!

The proposed rules about companies saying how many 'foreigners' are employed is a measure bound to inflame prejudice and threaten the livelihoods of people who have settled here in good faith. It is being reviled around the world as a sign of how the last country in Europe to embrace xenophobia in the 20 the century has taken the lead in this ignoble pursuit in the 21st century.

But perhaps the most ludicrous action of all in this package of petty chauvinism announced at the Tory Conference are the proposals to limit 'foreign' students. Apparently Amber Rudd is considering proposals so that overseas students will only be able to obtain work visas if they study at some universities, rather than 'lower quality' courses. According to one of her advisers quality will be measured by whether the universities are one of the two dozen members of the Russell Group of universities.

This proposal would do little, if anything to reduce overseas student numbers as the Russell Group universities would simply expand the intake to recruit the students who would have gone to non-Russell Group universities before. Meanwhile it would do severe financial damage to the rest. It would be an incredible piece of policy nonsense given that recently the Government proposed to ruin the top universities by linking home student fee rises to how well the universities scored in the National Student Survey (NSS) (see previous blog on why this is nonsense). That would mainly favour the non-research intensive universities who tend to do better in NSS scores.

I struggle to understand how it is that a Programme we run at Aberdeen University (or at places like the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex, Robert Gordon University also in Aberdeen etc) is 'lower quality' to one organised at a university in the Russell Group. But it is now. Because Amber Rudd says so. They'll be no NSS on that one I'm sure!

Of course if Amber Rudd fails to divide and rule the universities she may use the option of simply stopping overseas students getting work visas at all. But if this leads to large cuts in income from overseas students then then that would even more surely ruin the universities more thoroughly than will happen anyway with the loss of EU research income and the decline in numbers of EU students studying in the UK.

There's no good argument for doing this, bar the notion that this may nominally cut the numbers of so-called immigrants (students are counted in this list). It is ludicrous to claim that the students I teach at my and other universities are low skilled people, presumably who will put out British people out of jobs picking fruit or cleaning toilets. No they might compete with university lecturers for their jobs of course - but I can assure you that very, very, few of us mind about that!

But facts and expert opinion have departed from being regarded as having any relevance in UKIP Britain. Experts are weak liberal internationalists who have no country.  The Prime Minister has sacrificed her country in the race to save her Party by transforming it into UKIP.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Social Science research boosted by right-wing Tory ex-Minister

Peter Lilley, the ex-Tory cabinet minister, gave an unexpected boost to social science research when he implied that social science research was needed to estimate the impact of an administrative change he brought in when he was a minister in the 1990s. But what this (surprising?) boost does illustrate is that there is some hope to defend social science research from what I hear as the increasing howls of 'what's the point of all this' that I hear these days. This is especially strong after the EU referendum and the Brexiteer sneering at 'experts'.

Peter Lilley, in a Radio 4 Programme (broadcast earlier today) was actually discussing whether civil servants, in preparing lists of policy options, should include an option 'of doing nothing'. When asked whether this had led to long term changes in how policies are assessed he responded 'that's something for social science research to determine'! So get your ESRC applications in now, folks (although jolly good luck, because these days only about one in ten or so of proposals get funded!).

This boost was a little unexpected partly because the intensity of dismissal of social science research has strengthened in the wake of the EU referendum, with social scientists being attacked as being 'shamen' in one memorable attack from a right wing opinion leader that I can remember. It's nice to have somebody on the political right who thinks it is sometimes useful.
Of course lots of people say that we social scientists should just focus on teaching.  Now we have to do this of course, as well as research, but what all those wailing at us for spending so much time on research fail to answer is that when we do put a lot of effort into teaching:

Where exactly do we get the material to teach from?

I ask this question when people tackle me on the way that (so they say) academics 'waste' time on doing research when they could be helping students. and I must say that the responses seem pretty thin. People seem to simply ignore the point I make, or refer to some 'body of knowledge' out there which we can use. But where on earth do people think this 'body of knowledge' comes from? The Guardian, or Times perhaps? Well, they in fact tend to either recycle un-evidenced opinion or, wait for it, research published by academics. Or perhaps the Daily Mail? I won't comment in that one. Besides providing students with material to discuss and learn, social science research can answer a lot of questions that the people want to know about (including Peter Lilley it seems).

The Government have got very confused about all of this in their proposals for a 'Teaching Excellence Framework'. Initially at least, they seemed to be moving towards a proposal whereby the universities that did best in the national student satisfaction surveys league tables were allowed to increase their fees. Which seems ok at first sight until you understand that, as a very general rule, the universities that students most want to get into (ie research intensive universities) happen to be the ones that tend to come often towards the bottom of the 'teaching satisfaction' league tables. So would they be starved of funds and forced to sack the boffins?

So what does the Government want to do? Destroy places like Imperial College, and the LSE that don't do well enough in student satisfaction surveys but who generate very high quality research as represented by international league tables? Despite the fact that students want to get into these sorts of places most of all!  Of course, as we can see in Scotland, which boasts lots of top-rated universities (eg Edinburgh and Aberdeen, and others), a fees system is not necessary for UK students.

But maybe the universities should not expect too much help from the Government. After all they are tainted with the liberal internationalism that is so hated now by Brexit Britain.

There is an irony that, unintentionally, the Brexiteers, by bringing down the value of the pound, have made studying in Britain a lot more attractive for overseas students. This might go some way to replacing the loss of EU funds for research if it leads to increased numbers of students coming in from abroad. But I suspect Theresa May will order her ministers come up with some 'options' to put a stop to that sort of comeback!
Of course doing nothing to limit overseas students numbers would be one option that the universities would favour! But will a 'doing nothing' option be on the cabinet committee agenda?
By the way, if you want to join in (or just look at) the 'Energy Politics' facebook group at the University of Aberdeen go to