Friday, January 18, 2008

Public outcry over UK nuclear policy

Is there a role for nuclear energy in a low carbon economy? Some think that nuclear energy is a absolutely necessity in the battle to stave off catastrophic climate change. A number of prominent environmentalists including Stewart Brand (creator of The Whole Catalog) and James Lovelock (co-author of the Gaia Hypothesis) are among the voices joining that choir.

Fortunately, not everyone is jumping on the fission bandwagon. An official announcement that the UK is considering reviving its dormant nuclear industry and construct new plants has been met with public outrage and stirred up a highly-charged emotional debate.

(Clean) Power to the people! (GW)

Britain's nuclear future: 'A blatant failure of moral vision'

Two years ago, we warned against going nuclear, and none of our deep concerns have been addressed. Tim Jackson reports.

Tim Jackson
The Guardian
January 16 2008

Britain's shiny new nuclear policy is less than a week old and already it is mired in failure. The government's thinly disguised justification for a decision already made rides roughshod over the concerns of the public and patently ignores the warnings of the government's own advisers.

Two years ago, the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), reporting directly to the prime minister, published eight volumes of scientific analysis and its own carefully argued position paper, the Role of Nuclear Power in a Low Carbon Economy. The report accepted that replacing all the existing nuclear capacity with new nuclear plants might save 7m tonnes of carbon by the late 2020s - equivalent to around 4% of total UK emissions. It is a measurable, though not decisive, contribution.

However, the SDC identified a range of concerns. Foremost was the problem of high-level radioactive wastes and the role of the private sector in managing these. Nuclear power is particularly prone to the problem of "moral hazard" - the routine under-insurance of public risk. In the long run, society simply cannot allow such costs to go unpaid. Commercial failure to cover nuclear liabilities inevitably falls on the public purse.

The report also discussed uncertain economics and the danger of distracting attention from the essential task of reducing energy demand and implementing renewable energy. It concluded that "there is no justification for a new nuclear programme, at this time, and that any such proposal would be incompatible with the government's own sustainable development strategy".

Two years is an eternity in politics. But what exactly has changed to justify business secretary John Hutton's complete disregard for this advice? Do we see a safer nuclear world? Are the economics of nuclear power now more favourable? Have we made substantive progress towards demand reduction? No, no and no again.

Nuclear Iran remains a frightening prospect. The new Finnish European Pressurised Water Reactor - a flagship of the industry in 2006 - is today haunted by construction delays and cost overruns. And electricity demand has gone in the wrong direction, prompting the Finnish government to admit failure in reaching its 2010 carbon target.

To understand why last week's decision is a bad one returns us to the question of nuclear waste. Figuring out what to do with highly fissile materials that will remain radioactive for tens of thousands of years is an ethical nightmare. One thing is clear: before compounding our uncurbed demand for 4x4s, patio heaters and plasma screen TVs by expanding the nuclear legacy, we have an overriding moral obligation to mitigate the risk to future generations.

Critical here is the role of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM). Charged with identifying a strategy for existing wastes, CoRWM's July 2006 report recommended long-term geological disposal, coupled with a robust programme of safe and secure interim storage - possibly for as long as 100 years. That certainly gets this government off the hook. In reality, it means little more than business as usual for some considerable time to come. If only CoRWM's decision could be taken to apply to new-build wastes. The thrust of last week's white paper is to argue that it can.

But here, once again, the government is flouting expert advice. CoRWM made clear that its recommendations did not suggest a green light for new nuclear build. "The political and ethical issues raised by the creation of more wastes are quite different from those relating to committed - and therefore unavoidable - wastes," the committee argued.

It is always an option to ignore your advisers when they tell you things that you do not want to hear. Better still is a little light ridicule. There are only three references to the SDC's work in last week's 192-page document. One is a borrowed carbon calculation; the second is a one-line reversal of the commission's recent conclusion on tidal power; and the third is a claim that the government and the SDC see eye-to-eye on the question of nuclear proliferation. Like so much else in the document, this is disingenuous nonsense.

The one place where Hutton has heeded the commission is in acknowledging the propensity for moral hazard. But far from rethinking the role of the private sector in nuclear development, the white paper responds with a clear assurance to commercial developers that nuclear liabilities will be capped. This is obviously a government with no intention of addressing legitimate public concerns.

The challenge of climate change demands commitment to fiscal reform, support for renewable energy, reductions in energy demand, changes in the way we live, and some basic understanding of our obligations to the future. Sweeping aside these commitments with an ill-thought-out gesture towards nuclear power is a blatant failure of moral vision.

Tim Jackson is economics commissioner at the Sustainable Development Commission


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