Friday, October 26, 2007


Go Nuclear and the Lights Go Out

Apologists for the cosseted, public-subsidy-pampered nuclear industry usually just have to explain why a form of power that’s the top terrorist target, where accidents have the worst effect, where waste is more dangerous and longer-lasting than for any other supply, which relies entirely on foreign supply and which is ludicrously expensive to the taxpayer is the best. The usual answer is that it’s ‘more reliable than renewables’. How unfortunate, then, that on Tuesday – as the Government squirmed down its renewable ‘commitments’ from 20% to 10% – half of Britain’s nuclear power stations had to be, er, out of service.

The Today Programme on Tuesday morning managed a particularly woeful coverage of the expensive and unreliable nuclear programme: look, ‘Today’, just because you’re both called ‘programme’, it doesn’t been you have to be so obviously on nuclear’s side. After a short, pre-recorded anti-nuclear phone call from Michael Meacher (a man with moderately good green credentials, but with no position and no support in a Labour Party that’s turning into nuclear’s biggest cheerleader, so who exactly was he speaking for? If you want a party that stands for something, ask a Liberal Democrat), their prime 8.10am slot staged a nuclear ‘debate’ between… A scientist committed to the nuclear industry, and an employee of the nuclear lobby. Astoundingly, neither of them felt that nuclear power might not be the answer, and the interviewer make the extraordinary naïve mistake of trying to balance between the two pro-nuclear lobbyists rather than press them on why a terrorist-friendly, incredibly dangerous, waste-spewing, import-dependent power source that we all pay through the nose for is so erratic that seven out of sixteen reactors weren’t even working.

The nuclear industry receives public subsidy on a scale unthinkable to almost any other ‘private enterprise’ – not least the multi-billion costs of decommissioning, which are entirely funded by the taxpayer and make a nonsense of the industry’s free-market claims to cost-effectiveness. None of this or nuclear power’s many other drawbacks was raised by or with the two pro-nuclear spokespeople on Today; gee, wonder why? Imagine if renewable technology had had a fraction of the investment that nuclear fission reactors have over the years; Britain could be a world leader in world-saving, job-creating, self-sufficient energy. We’re not, and the Labour Government appears determined to carry on with the same old Tory-Labour consensus of failure – pulling back from renewables, and throwing good money after bad by favouring yet more unsafe, unreliable and unrealistically expensive nuclear power.

Top marks to Lib Dem acting Leader Vince Cable for raising the Labour Government’s climate change-contributing climbdown on its renewable targets at Prime Minister’s Question Time this week – and a weary sigh to Gordon Brown for his well-worn reply of ‘Look! The Tories! Wooh, scary!’ No, Mr Brown, Halloween is next week; you should be ashamed of selling out the long-term future of the planet, not reducing everything in the world to short-term political playfighting.

Careful readers will have noticed I’ve not been blogging much in recent weeks… Well, since Lib Dem Conference last month my health has been especially bad, and for the last couple of weeks, worse still. Gah. On the bright side, I’m feeling very cheered this morning. What could it be? The death of King Alfred the Great? No… The Gunfight at the OK Corral? No… Hillary Clinton’s birthday? No… Some sort of anniversary, I’m sure. I’ll ask Richard when he gets up.

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The only argument I have any truck with when it comes to nuclear power is the economic one - and that is powerful.

As a terrorist target - its going to be very difficult to carry out an attack, its rather a movie plot threat rather than a real one. Accidents - very unlikely, especially with modern reactors where a Three Mile Island or Chernobyl cannot happen.

Waste spewing is a bit much - a small amount of very dangerous waste is produced, much of which can be reused and made safer. It is a concern, but for me its not paramount. Of course any plan for a power station must include dealing with this waste - which comes back to the economics...

Throwing around 'import dependency' is a complete red herring. We're dependent upon other countries for most things, are you advocating we be independent in food production (with massive environmental impact) or in electronics (again with massive environmental impact). At least sources of nuclear fuel are held by friendly, stable countries unlike oil and gas. Its straying into protectionism and nationalism, both alien to the liberal tradition...

The subsidy is the biggest concern. If a company were to set out a plan by which they would build, run and decommission a nuclear power station - with an insurance policy in place to ensure decommissioning in the event of the company going bust, then I see no reason to go prevent it (assuming reactor design is deemed suitable, there's somewhere to build it etc)

Those may be rather insurmountable however, but that's fine, it means its not the best solution.

I wouldn't support 100% nuclear though. Just as its nonsense to support 100% wind power. We need competition and diversity in the energy market. Renewables are being subsidised too and they should not be, except, perhaps by a prize fund for discovering a cheap, clean, efficient means of generating electricity - that would spur on development in the best way, probably coming up with several promising leads until one is found (and the others are likely to be brought to the market anyway- best not to waste that research money...)

I agree that the Today 'debate' sounds terrible though. You'd have thought that they'd try to get people from different views...

I do wonder why those reactors were down. I'd like to see reliability statistics rather than anecdote (if they're unreliable then that's another economic nail in the coffin of course).

On the government targets - I wouldn't expect any less - targets are rarely met, and rarely have any net benefit. They're mainly PR exercises.
At least pigouvian taxation and prize funds work by changing incentives which people will respond to how they wish. Government planning just doesn't work in the economic, social or environmental spheres.

Take care, and hope you get well soon.
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