A self-defeating argument for nuclear power

The UK government’s energy review is more interested in changing the public’s behaviour than in putting a positive case for nuclear.

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Topics Science & Tech

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Contrary to press reports, the real story of the UK government’s energy review published yesterday, 11 July 2006, is not about nuclear power (1). Yes, as the British media have endlessly insisted, on 16 May prime minister Tony Blair told the Confederation of British Industry’s annual dinner that nuclear power was ‘back on the agenda with a vengeance’ (2). And no doubt this latest review was in part a cover for a pro-nuclear shift that Blair felt uncomfortable making without backup.

But Alistair Darling, New Labour’s secretary of state for trade and industry, was right when he complained on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that his critics were ‘mesmerised’ by nuclear power; the government was not, he claimed. That, unfortunately, is true. Blair, after all, announced the review by getting himself filmed in front of a giant offshore wind farm. He wasn’t going to be filmed in front of Sizewell B.

How many nuclear plants does the country need? How many megawatts should they generate? Over what timeframe should they be built, and where, exactly? There were no answers to these questions, either in Darling’s speech to the House of Commons or in the 215-page review. Darling has shown that pressing the nuclear button means a New Labour policy of…leaving the private sector to ‘initiate, fund, construct and operate’ new nuclear reactors (3). The policy of equivocation is also clear in the way that the future of nuclear power has been made dependent on a yet-to-be-published report from the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management and future guidance to be developed by the Health and Safety Executive. Perhaps by the time those bodies have reported, there will have been yet another review about nuclear power in general….

Reading the review and the subsequent press coverage, it all sounds like a free-market, laissez-faire solution to the nuclear power issue, with just a little worry about what the mangled prose of the review describes as ‘potential skills pinch points’ in the UK’s supply of nuclear engineers. In fact, the review confirms that, in energy matters as elsewhere, government conceives of private sector firms as merely the executors of a state programme of safety first and risk aversion.

The real message is that nuclear power must pull its weight helping Britons meet the twin ‘challenges’ repetitiously cited throughout the review: climate change, and reliance on oil and gas from Russia, Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

This is unlikely to win over the public. Critics of the government share its politics of fear, but are more consistent. Michael Meacher, the left-leaning Labour MP, is the most daring here. He believes that nuclear power can only be uneconomic, and that the waste is unspeakable. His trump card is that terrorists might attack nuclear reactors.

Replying to this charge, David Miliband, minister of communities and local government, told Radio 4’s PM that other kinds of power plants could also be attacked. What a weak reply! If we are really going to talk up a terrorist attack, the man in the street would prefer that it happened to Drax B, not Sizewell B. Collapse of the nuclear argument.

But the energy review contains more than a shaky commitment to nuclear power. Certainly the government truly is mesmerised by ‘carbon trading’ and renewable energy.

The market trading of CO2: ‘A key role for government’, goes the thrust of chapter 1, is to ‘put in place a framework’ which will in turn go ‘placing a value on carbon’. Inspiring stuff – if you’re one of the burgeoning ranks of pinstriped green-minded bean-counters at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte and other City accounting firms.

Renewables: The review hopes that electricity suppliers will raise the amount of supply they get from renewable sources from 6.7 per cent today to 20 per cent in 2015/16. Indeed, the Renewables Obligation under which suppliers now labour wins no fewer than 95 mentions in the review.

But even more scary is the review’s declaration that the government intends to lead ‘a new push to make thinking about carbon and energy an integral part of the culture. This will involve providing the information, advice, support networks and incentives to support energy efficiency and to change behaviour.’

Liberal Democrats and other critics of the review are welcome to their conspiracy theories about Blair ‘surrendering’ to the nuclear lobby – just as BBC TV, the conscience of the nation, confronted Blair on a train by comparing the review to his famous ‘dodgy dossier’ on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. But the surrender that is really going on is rather different. The British state is demanding that energy suppliers, like the common people, fully give in to a policy on which, by contrast with its vagueness on nuclear power, the government is very clear, firm and detailed: we must make do with less energy.

As Blair says in his foreword to the review, ‘In the end…we must all – government, business and individuals – play our part by changing behaviour.’ And he means it.

Some basic statistics about the review bear out our interpretation of it as a ridiculous and deeply fearful mix of arm-waving about nuclear power, and finger-wagging about everything else:

The review by the numbers:

— Longest chapter, at 24 pages: ‘Saving Energy’

— Mentions of raising, improving, promoting or increasing mass ‘awareness’ of energy problems: 15

— Mentions of changing people’s behaviour: about 20

— Mentions of the word risk: 91.

While the review does not dedicate a chapter to nuclear power, a move toward ‘distributed generation’, meaning local rather than central generation, does merit such treatment. The ‘main advantage of the traditional system has been its ability to reduce costs through economies of scale’ explains the review. The new approach has other advantages: ‘a more community-based energy system might lead to a greater awareness of energy issues, engaging people in the supply of energy and, in turn, prompting them to consider how to use it more efficiently.’

Then there is the section on ‘better energy bills’. Perhaps in this case you think small really is beautiful. The government has other ideas. Utilities have been told to ‘address the important issue of consumer behaviour’ by ensuring, from 2007 onwards, that their bills tell householders how much energy they have used over, say, the previous year ‘in graphical form’: bar charts look like being preferred. The government will be discussing with electricity utilities ‘how best to rapidly roll out the provision of real-time displays’ so that householders know, minute-to-minute, how much juice they are using and so how much costs they are incurring.

Further ahead, ‘“Smart meters” – that provide instant updates on energy use – and other sophisticated forms of monitoring’ designed to ‘help consumers make more informed choices’ are set to become an offer you can’t refuse.

By 2011, in a kind of Cultural Revolution running, like Mao’s Red Guards in the Chinese countryside, through British homes, energy suppliers will also have an obligation to go about ‘reducing absolute energy demand or carbon emissions’ among householders – though DEFRA is relying not just on the youthful cadres of the Boy Scouts, but also on the Women’s Institute who will ‘develop EcoTeams’ to spread the message.

All through the review there is an emphasis on mobilising local and community organisations in the battle to raise awareness. Indeed, one of the ‘key policies’ mentioned by the review is ‘a new power for Parish Councils to promote microgeneration in their own parishes’. Ah, those Parish Councils. They will really help us face down Gazprom and the Russians when Mr Blair’s oil and gas chickens come home to roost.

This approach to energy seems dedicated to weighing us all down with guilt and fear about the consequences of our actions. Here the worst sin is to use energy thoughtlessly. Because everything we do makes use of energy, the ‘awareness crusade’ could yet have a paralysing effect on life as we agonise over the ‘sustainability’ of our smallest actions. In this, its aim is diametrically opposed to what we should demand from a forward-looking energy policy. No one would argue that energy use should not be clean and efficient – and modern technology can provide energy that is both.

But the dramatic impact that increased energy supply has had on society has come about as energy has become more freely available. The fact that we are able do anything from turning on a light to flying on a plane without worrying where the energy has come from is a miracle of technology and social organisation. It has liberated us to pursue any number of goals and projects. More important than a debate over nuclear, wind, coal or any other sort of fuel is the need for more invisible, ubiquitous and, yes, thoughtless energy.

(1) Read the government’s energy review, The Energy Challenge, here.

(2) For Blair’s full speech to the Confederation of British Industry, click here.

(3) Statement to the House of Commons, 11 July 2006

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Topics Science & Tech


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