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What happened to the positive case for nuclear power?

The UK government is trying to promote nuclear by stoking up fears about the future. Bad move.

Joe Kaplinsky

Topics Science & Tech

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Once again the debate over nuclear power is heating up in the UK – but it hasn’t yet reached a sufficient temperature to generate anything useful.

The greens are upset by reports that the case for nuclear is gaining ground in government. Jonathon Porritt, government-appointed chair of the Sustainable Development Commission, has warned that a revival of nuclear power would be ‘foolish’ and ‘a very serious own goal’. Former environment minister Michael Meacher has talked of a ‘conspiracy’, led by chief scientific adviser Sir David King, to bring back nuclear (1).

Kate Hudson, chair of CND, is also worried. ‘Government spin doctors and the nuclear industry myth-makers are working overtime to repackage nuclear power as the green solution to climate change’, she said (2). Friends of the Earth has issued a press release headed ‘Blair must not back new nuclear power plants’ (3).

So what are these reports? Perhaps Blair has made a statement supportive of nuclear power? Well, not quite. Asked by the House of Commons Liaison Committee about nuclear power and climate change, he replied: ‘With some of the issues to do with climate change – and you can see it with the debate about nuclear power – there are going to be difficult and controversial decisions government has got to take.’ (4) So no actual decisions about nuclear power, then. But Blair does understand a decision must be taken, which is nice to know. Indeed some people seem as worried at the prospect that Blair may have already ‘made up his mind’ as by the actual decision.

In fact, decisions have been deferred until after (yet another) review, due to report next year. Energy minister Malcom Wicks says: ‘I happen to be nuclear-neutral and so is Alan Johnson [trade and industry secretary]. I think that’s helpful.’ (5) The prime minister’s official view remains that ‘we need to look at all the options’ (6). If there is an orchestrated campaign to make the case for nuclear energy, it looks well hidden.

One reason why the case for nuclear power is gaining ground is practical. Blair told MPs that new nuclear power stations must be considered a real option because ‘the facts have changed over the last couple of years’. One key fact that is changing is that the proportion of electricity derived from nuclear power is falling. It now stands at 21 per cent, but is set to fall rapidly to four per cent as all but one of Britain’s nuclear power stations close by 2023. Much non-nuclear electricity generation has also suffered from underinvestment – 52 per cent of non-nuclear capacity is more than 30 years old (7).

Faith in wind power, in which the government has more publicly invested its hopes, is a short-term perspective. If wind does expand at maximum capacity it may cover the growth of up to a few per cent per year in electricity demand, although after a few years of such growth the intermittency of wind will become an increasing problem. Wind cannot begin to replace older nuclear and coal capacity. As Downing Street tactfully put it, renewables are ‘not 100 per cent effective’ (8).

It should be an elementary point, but the argument made by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the GMB Union that the country needs an effective energy supply to function, must be taken seriously (9). With each passing year the prospect of an energy shortage becomes a little more plausible.

Instead, nuclear advocates have fixed upon the argument that because nuclear power emits no carbon dioxide it is an essential weapon against climate change. Indeed this point has become so firmly established (although it is contested by environmentalists) that we are in danger of forgetting why we build power stations in the first place. After all, if the aim was just to minimise waste and pollution the simplest solution would be not to build anything at all.

It may seem peculiar to suggest that anybody, aside from a few environmentalist extremists, seriously thinks that we should live without a modern energy supply. But in an age of uncertainty, when none of the old moral, political or religious truths seems to stand, few people confidently assert that the greens are wrong.

It is the sense of moral disorientation that environmentalist and Guardian columnist George Monbiot appeals to when he writes about the consequences of climate change:

‘Everything we thought was good turns out also to be bad. It is an act of kindness to travel to your cousin’s wedding. Now it is also an act of cruelty. It is a good thing to light the streets at night. Climate change tells us it kills more people than it saves. We are killing people by the most innocent means: turning on the lights, taking a bath, driving to work, going on holiday. Climate change demands a reversal of our moral compass, for which we are plainly unprepared.’ (10)

So, were the consequences of electrification good or bad? Did the spread of electrical consumer goods in the 1950s help to liberate women from housework, or did it fuel our addiction to consumption? Did the electrification of rural communities free them from the capricious tyranny of nature, or did it alienate them from the land? For many, these are not clear-cut questions.

When all our past achievements are called into question it is important to remember that we have not just survived problems such as climate change and pollution, but that life has improved. Few people would really choose to live in the past.

It is our uncertainty that has turned climate change into an insuperable problem. The problem with putting climate change at the centre of decision-making is illustrated by the 2005 advertising campaign run by the Carbon Trust. ‘I am become the destroyer of worlds’, it ran. This is a quote from Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project, on seeing the detonation of the first atomic bomb (11). He was quoting in turn from the Bhagavad Gita Hindu scripture, and the message was clear: technology has become a means of destruction.

In these terms, nuclear technology becomes a source of apocalypse. But in fact we have only just begun creatively to tap the possibilities of nuclear technologies, not just in power generation but in applications from space flight to medicine. By focusing on problems we narrow our horizons, missing out on the possibilities for future developments. If instead we ask about innovations that can satisfy new needs and desires, experience has shown that older problems become more manageable with our expanded capacities. This should govern our approach to the expansion of nuclear power.

The government clings to combating climate change as one of the few unquestioned moral absolutes today. But without a more positive motivation than staving off the effects of man’s destructiveness, it seems unlikely that it can throw its weight behind a proper investment in nuclear power.

If this situation continues, we will all suffer the consequences of a decaying energy infrastructure – and will forgo as yet unimagined opportunities.

Joe Kaplinsky is a patent and technology analyst.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Energy

(1) Blair warned against ‘own goal’ in nuclear energy review), Scotsman, 22 November 2005

(2) Blair says ‘facts have changed’ on nuclear power, Guardian, 22 November 2005

(3) Blair must not back new nuclear power plants, 21 November 2005

(4) Blair says ‘facts have changed’ on nuclear power, Guardian, 22 November 2005

(5) ‘Decision on UK nuclear power by end of 2006’, Financial Times, 28 September 2005

(6) Blair risks MPs’ revolt over new nuclear stations, Daily Telegraph, November 22 2005

(7) Plugging the Energy Gap, Richard Barry, Prospect, November 2005

(8) Afternoon press briefing from 21 November 2005

(9) Meacher condemns pro-nuclear ‘spin’, Guardian, 21 November 2005

(10) A restraint of liberty, Guardian, 24 May 2005

(11) The original line historically quoted by Oppenheimer was ‘I have become death, destroyer of worlds’

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Topics Science & Tech

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