Stop using fear to sell us the nuclear option

Tony Blair, take note: the argument for nuclear power will never be won with scare stories about climate change and a global energy crisis.

Joe Kaplinsky

Topics Science & Tech

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UK prime minister Tony Blair made a speech on Tuesday night in which he announced that ‘the replacement of nuclear power stations [is] back on the agenda with a vengeance’. Yet why does he seem incapable of letting the words ‘nuclear power’ pass his lips without also stoking up fears of climate change and mentioning renewables and efficiency, too? (1)

Blair relied on fear of the future, and of global warming, to make his argument in favour of nuclear power – which means that, ironically, he shares much ground with his anti-nuclear opponents. This time he also talked up the problem of something called ‘energy security’. Without a positive, forward-looking case for nuclear power – instead of it being presented as something necessary to save mankind from almost certain self-induced doom – the argument will never really be won.

In his speech to the CBI, Blair keyed into universal discomfort with the globalisation of energy supply, the way in which Western nations are becoming reliant upon Middle Eastern or other Third World nations. His first ‘fact’ supporting the replacement of Britain’s nuclear power stations was that, otherwise, ‘we will become heavily dependent on gas and at the same time move from being 80 to 90 per cent self-reliant in gas to 80 to 90 per cent dependent on foreign imports, mostly from the Middle East, and Africa and Russia.’

On the other side, Blair’s opponents claim that going further down the nuclear route will actually make us more dependent on others. Tony Juniper, director of Friends of the Earth, responded to Blair’s speech by attacking nuclear power as ‘a choice based on imported French or US technology, when we have dozens of UK companies waiting for government to signal that it is truly in favour of sustainable energy’ (2).

These calls for self-reliance are misleading. They seem to me to be motivated by fear of dependence on others, thus revealing a great deal of self-doubt in the debate about Britain and its energy. The fear that others may pull the rug from under us, leaving us helpless, is rooted in the idea that we are so profoundly vulnerable that we dare not put our energy security at risk by engaging with other countries.

It also reflects a pretty low view of foreigners. The argument that local energy is better is similar to that other green argument – that we should know where our food comes from. That way we can be sure that the big corporations are not conspiring against us, whether they be supermarkets or factory farmers despoiling the environment or oil companies building pipelines and doing deals with dictators. The end result if this view becomes more widespread is less likely to be new nuclear power stations possibly assisted by foreign investment and know-how, than self-built windmills in the back garden.

Juniper compares Blair’s decision-making over nuclear power with his earlier decision to invade Iraq: ‘In the end, we got what came to be known as the dodgy dossier [over Iraq]. The so-called energy review may well end up being seen as the nuclear equivalent.’ There is something to this comparison, but not howJuniper thinks. In both his calls for war in Iraq and for nuclear power at home, Blair has come up with a lot of bluster about the difficulty of making hard decisions, and in both instances he has tried to convince the public of his case by feeding us exaggerated or fabricated scare stories rather than the facts.

Even when the facts are on his side – as they are in the arguments for nuclear power, where they certainly were not over Iraq – Blair can’t resist using fear to make his case.

The problem with Blair’s nuclear vision is the opposite of what his green critics claim: it is not that he is being overambitious but rather is being mealymouthed and apologetic. Remember it is only ‘replacement of nuclear power stations’ that has been put ‘on the agenda’, not anything like ‘expansion’. The lifetime of Britain’s nuclear power stations has already been extended, and without some sort of replacement we would be in danger of seeing the lights go out.

Rather than creating a bigger, better, new generation of power stations, all that is really being proposed is to patch up what already exists.

It is now suggested that if new construction gets the go-ahead, then in order to avoid controversy it will take place on the sites of existing power stations. This represents a significant lowering of horizons from expansion to simple reproduction of already-existing stations. And even this low level of dynamism should not be taken for granted. A proposed 10-year planning process before new plants are built is commonly described as ‘fast track’ – with no sense of irony (3).

Meanwhile the Tories are rapidly developing their more-Blairite-than-Blair line. One news report says they are ‘looking at making the investment climate more favourable to nuclear without actually endorsing new stations’ (4).

The rest of us, it seems, will have to look somewhere other than mainstream politics for arguments in favour of real and meaningful nuclear development.

(1) Tony Blair: speech to annual CBI dinner, Downing Street website

(2) Blair’s dodgy nuclear dossier, Tony Juniper, Comment is free…, 17 May 2006

(3) Britain goes nuclear to beat energy crisis, The Times (London), 17 May 2006
(4) Blair pushes the nuclear button, Guardian, 17 May 2006

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Topics Science & Tech


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