Saturday, May 13, 2006

Anti-nuclear politics is backward at the best of times

I take it totally for granted that I have a constant supply of energy. So why is it that everybody keeps constantly reminding me that I can’t take it for granted anymore?

How can it be, in a technologically advanced country like Britain, that energy can become a debatable subject? What’s wrong with Western nuclear power? It’s the safest form of energy production that mankind has conceived. Why do environmentalists hate our nuclear age and prefer to go backwards to the age of wind power, or worse? Why should I care where my energy comes from that powers my laptop?

As for future energy needs for the year 2050 and beyond, why not look to solar energy, beamed down by high voltage solar powered satellites, 7 days a week, in any weather? You would also need nuclear fusion to generate that power along superconducting cables. (1) This would render the idea of our societies having an ‘energy crisis’ redundant, but I fear there would be too much environmentalist hostility towards such a bold development, because now we have to constantly think about how we can get to work without damaging the eco-system, or without risking a persons health– or worse, running out of energy altogether, and so on, and on. But why?

Contrary to popular belief we are not running out energy, and when we need energy, we get it. I will admit that a very serious discussion needs to take place about the future of where we get our energy. The way I understand it, energy as a resource seems, generally to be a rather technical problem – but now, it’s a political problem. Some would have us believe it’s some type of war, and that oil addicted ‘vested interests’ lay behind all the political problems associated with energy. (2)

If only it was that simple. The main problems I see when it comes to the future of energy, is not redneck oil barons, but the current irrational opposition to nuclear power. Everybody seems to hates nuclear power, there are few defenders - worst still; the government rolls over and entertains the publics’ fears and prejudices. Environmentalists’ everlasting preoccupation with climate change and greenhouse emissions threatens our society by putting us on a prolonged crisis mentality footing. The out come of all of this is a paralysing effect that cuts off any fruitful avenues that we might wish to go down.

As openDemoracy's Casper Henderson observes, ‘the nuclear industry and its allies in many countries have for some time used the need to reduce emissions as a central plank in their argument for more nuclear power’. (3) But only as an option – not as a rational long term solution. Indeed, Sir David King, the governments chief scientific adviser made this explicit when he said the new generation of existing fission technologies should be an ‘option’. (4)

Politician certainly believe they can talk about the desirability of nuclear power in polite company at dinner parties these days, but it’s only as an option, it’s not presented as a science and technology that could hugely contribute to social progress. The advancement of nuclear technology in the UK has become prematurely restricted.

The problem is not Western nuclear energy and it’s economics, the problem is our overly risk-averse and precautionary times we live in. Anti-nuclear (and anti-radiation) critics are driven by a profound fear of accidents. This fear is irrational and paralyzing, and it leads to over-regulation in the nuclear energy sector, and through that exceptional costs.

The result of this anit-nuclear politics, has meant that nuclear energy has not had the opportunity to gain the full benefits of operating experience or economies of scale and standardization. Even though the Royal Academy of Engineering argued in their report that future nuclear energy still remains the most ‘competitive’ form of electricity production to date. (5) Criticism of nuclear waste for example highlights how the politics of risk-aversion and precaution actually ends up holding society back. Environmentalists current obsession with the imaginary and symbolic risk surrounding nuclear waste has meant that the simple task of dumping nuclear waste, has become a costly issue, and expense - that knows no limit.

The last nuclear power station built in the UK was Sizewell B, and that construction only started in 1987, after years of regulatory wrangling and Britain’s longest public inquiry. It’s not the economics that puts off the private nuclear energy sector, it’s the governments overbearing precautionary regulations that are a powerful disincentives to energy companies.

Ultimately, and thankfully, we will have a nuclear powered future. The nuclear programme will go ahead, whether ecologists like it or not, and so what if they don’t like it. Nuclear power already provides some 20 percent of Britain’s electricity and it needs to provide much more in the future. But if the environmentalist movement continue their fight, and have their way, we can all look forwards to going backwards to the age of wind power - something, we stopped doing over 100 years ago. (6)

Read on:

(1) NASA: House Science Committee Hearings on Solar Power Satellites. 2000
http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=2568

(2) Energy wars and the future of planet earth – Part 1, 2 & 3. By Casper Henderson. 2003.
http://www.opendemocracy.net/themes/article.jsp?articleId=873&id=6

http://www.opendemocracy.net/themes/article-6-900.jsp

http://www.opendemocracy.net/debates/article-6-32-924.jsp

(3) Re: The obsession with emissions. A reply by C. Henderson. 2005.
http://www.opendemocracy.net/forums/thread.jspa?forumID=179&threadID=44230&tstart=0

(4) Global warming won't save nuclear power. By Joe Kaplinsky. 2005.
http://www.spiked-online.com/Printable/0000000CA987.htm

(5) The Cost of Generating Electricity. The Royal Academy of Engineering. 2004.
http://www.raeng.org.uk/news/publications/list/reports/Cost_Generation_Commentary.pdf

(6) Welcome to the Age of Wind. The future of energy: By Jennie Bristow. 2002
http://www.spiked-online.com/articles/00000002D450.htm

Picture: The Sellafield Golf Ball, BBC News
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/spl/hi/pop_ups/06/business_sellafield0s_future/html/5.stm

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