Gordon Brown’s great nuclear con trick

The Guardian – Comment Is Free – 9 January 2008

The government’s decision to give the go ahead for a new generation of nuclear power stations sums up New Labour’s fundamental ignorance, short-sightedness and lack of imagination.

When the Prime Minister says expanded nuclear power is essential to meet an expected energy deficit, and cut carbon emissions and global warming, he is badly misinformed and seriously mistaken. There are other – cheaper, faster and safer – ways to remedy these problems, such as energy conservation and renewable sources like wind, wave, tidal, hydro, geo-thermal and solar power. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/money/main.jhtml?xml=/money/2007/02/19/ccview19.xml

This wide variety of practical non-nuclear energy options was detailed by Roger Higman, campaigns coordinator of Friends of the Earth, when I interviewed him for my Talking With Tatchell online current affairs TV programme, which you can watch here.

On one point the government is absolutely right: global warming and climate chaos are the biggest threats to UK and world prosperity, justice, peace and human rights. We need urgent action to cut carbon emissions; especially in the energy-production sector where fossil fuels – like oil, coal and gas – are major contributors to the looming rise in global temperatures.

Gordon Brown’s solution is nuclear power. He wants 10 new nuclear plants.

This will, however, only reduce our carbon emissions by 4% according to Greenpeace and the Sustainable Development Commission.

One problem the government appears not to have accounted for is the worldwide shortage of nuclear engineers. If there are not sufficient technicians available, who will build and operate these new nuclear reactors?

Even if the green light is given to nuclear this year, the earliest the new reactors will be completed and start delivering electricity is 2021 to 2025 – well beyond 2015 when the government says the UK will be hit by the energy shortages that it claims nuclaer is necessary to remedy.

The truth is this: even if you love nuclear, it is too little, too late.

Although the government proposes that the massive construction and operating costs of these new nuclear stations will be borne by private energy corporations, the taxpayer and consumer are expected bear the burden of the tens of billions of pounds that it will cost to decommission the reactors at the end of their working life and to store their toxic radioactive waste for up to 20,000 years, until it decays and becomes harmless.

Bizarrely, the government is pursuing the nuclear option and claiming that it will produce cheap electricity less than four months after its own Nuclear Decommissioning Authority revealed that the clean up of the UK’s existing nuclear power stations will top a staggering £73 billion.

When you factor in these decommissioning costs, nuclear energy is not low-cost at all. Indeed, Jeremy Leggett, Chief Executive of SolarCentury recently highlighted the public’s hidden subsidisation of the nuclear industry, without which it would not be competitive and without which the proposed new nuclear plants will never be built.

If nuclear power is so economic, why have no nuclear plants been built in the UK in the last two decades? The truth is that no nuclear generators have ever been built without public subsidy, as was conceded by an energy industry spokesperson on BBC Newsnight on Tuesday evening’s programme.

Steve Webb MP, Lib Dem spokesperson on the Environment and Energy, earlier this week reminded us of the government’s subversion of democracy with its biased, unlawful, so-called consultation on nuclear power.

His criticisms of the way the government has attempted to railroad MPs and the public into accepting the nuclear option have been echoed by Jeremy Leggett, Chief Executive of SolarCentury and by 17 top scientists and academics, including professors of Oxford, Sussex, and Lancaster universities, and of Rutgers university in the US.

This group of independent experts have warned that the risk of radiation leaks, the long-term disposal and safeguarding of nuclear waste and the vulnerability of nuclear plants to terrorist attack have not been addressed by the government.

Their warning follows a high court decision last year which declared the government’s public consultation unlawful and ordered that it be repeated.

The experts expressed dismay concerning the government’s flawed nuclear energy consultation process:
“We are profoundly concerned that the government’s approach was designed to provide particular and limiting answers,” said Paul Dorfman, a spokesman for the group of 17 scientists and academics. “Those answers risk locking in UK energy to an inflexible and vulnerable pathway that will prove unsustainable,” he added.

In an 88-page report, the experts say: “Significant issues were not consulted on in any meaningful way or resolved in practice. It has left the government vulnerable to legal challenge and may lead to hostility and mistrust of any future energy decision.”

Even at this late stage, I hope the Prime Minister and his government will think again and recognise that nuclear power is not cheap, safe or sustainable. It is certainly not necessary. Energy conservation and renewable energy offer viable, practical alternatives to the nuclear option. Moreover, they will plug the projected energy gap much quicker and more reliably than nuclear power.

If the government won’t listen, let’s hope that backbench Labour MPs will have the guts to join with MPs from other parties to vote down against Gordon’s simplistic, knee-jerk and unworkable pro-nuclear policy.