Just when you thought it could get no worse, New Labour goes nuclear.
The whispering campaign around the push for nuclear power has been gaining momentum since last year. Until then Britain’s nuclear programme seemed to have been largely written off as the costly and dangerous failure it was. Nobody even knows how to safely decommission the power stations already built or store the radioactive waste already produced. Britain’s nuclear power programme was historically dogged with safety issues, radioactive contamination and, of course, massive overspend. And yet now we’re supposed to sit back and swallow the construction of a few more of these toxic dumps. How’re they going sell this to the British public?
You have to stand back and admire the propaganda. In the face of a potentially very cold winter, Neo Labour is using their own incompetence in not securing sufficient energy supplies or efficiency to go round saying, “Do you want Granny to shiver alone at Christmas? Do you want to have to rely on gas pumped thousands of miles across steppes haunted only by bearded jihadists every time you want a cup of tea? So come on! What’s a little radioactive waste between friends?”
This glowing bombshell is being slipped in under the umbrella of a “wide ranging review of all Britain’s energy needs”. But Tony’s think-tanks have come to the conclusion that wind turbines in marginal countryside constituencies are big vote losers and it’s the intoxicating power of glowing uranium rather than hippy wind and wave power that the Confederation of British Industry wants, so it’s likely that’s what they’ll get. Even Johnny Ball, CBBC’s “Mr Science”, was seen weighing in on the side of radioactive waste dumps on Channel 4 news. So far the need for nuclear power is being pushed on energy shortages, national security issues and the need to cut carbon emissions. The first two have an element of truth - but only if we want to carry on in the same energy wasteful, consumerist way as before. If that’s the case then we need more energy. The problems currently being encountered in Iraq have signalled that we may not be able to just help ourselves to world’s hydrocarbon reserves without a backlash anymore. Or in other words, if we want the shopping malls then we’ve got to put up with a perpetual state of war.
Seizing the initiative the nuclear lobby came crawling back into the debate claiming to have the solution to energy shortage and Britain’s security. They reckon their magic solution, hedging Britain's energy bets by including nuclear in the power re-mix, will cut UK carbon emissions. These claims fail to impress on closer inspection leaving you wondering why precisely the government is floating this idea now. Is it anything to do with UK plc’s need to hang on to an independent nuclear deterrent and a source of weapons grade plutonium? BNFL, which will be administering the PFI contracts for reactors, is also the major shareholder in Britain’s militarised reactor at Aldermaston.
HEDGE OF DARKNESS
Britain’s 12 nuclear power stations provide a quarter of our electricity now, but unless they are replaced with new ones as they reach retirement, then there will only be three nuclear stations left in operation by 2020 producing less than 10% of our current consumption. The plan was to replace nuclear power with wind and solar energy so that by 2020, green energy would account for a fifth of our total leccy consumption. The National Audit Office reported back in February that electricity bills would need to rise by over 10% per cent if we are to meet these targets. With an inability to meet even these modest targets over the next 15 years, there is no hope of achieving Britain’s longer-term goal of cutting carbon emissions by 60% while sustaining continual growth by 2050 unless nuclear is somewhere in the energy mix. Therefore, unbelievably, the biggest nuke programme since the 1960s is being sold as the cornerstone of our environmental protection policy! - of course the idea that we cut down on our levels of carbon emissions by cutting down on consumption of fuels and products is politically unthinkable.
So put memories of the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl disasters to one side. Forget about British Nuclear Fuel’s poor health and safety record for just one moment. Try not to recall the evidence of increased cancer risk for people living near the power stations. Try not to think about how safe having a new load of nuclear reactors is likely to make us. Forget the scattered depleted uranium. This is a carbon neutral way of meeting our emissions targets, is it not? Er, no, not when you take into account the preparation of uranium for the reactor which involves mining and milling the ore, fuel enrichment and fuel-rod fabrication. Then there’s the construction of the power station itself. At the other end there’s reactor decommissioning and the treatment, storage, transport and disposal of nuclear waste. All in all, Greenpeace reckon that Co2 emissions from nuclear power are at least a third of those from traditional fossil fuels.
Not only that, but all this ignores the relatively small role played by nuclear power in the overall energy economy. The UK fleet of 23 operating nuclear reactors generates just 22% of the UK’s electricity. Electricity generation currently accounts for 37% of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions, with transport and heating the other major sources. Even if all 23 nuclear reactors were closed and electricity generation was replaced by a mix of coal, gas and renewables, UK carbon dioxide emissions would only rise by about 10%. In contrast, clean, renewable power sources, hand-in-hand with reduced consumption and energy efficiency measures, offer the best hope for preventing global climate catastrophe.
In any case the UK is currently pissing energy up the wall like a binge drinker. The Government’s own Performance and Innovation Unit found that up to one third of our energy is wasted due to poorly insulated homes and energy hungry appliances. Improving the way we use our energy could save around 40 million tonnes of carbon emissions a year. Our current centralised energy system is highly inefficient; two thirds of primary energy may be lost up the UK’s chimneys and transmission lines alone.
In Denmark, decentralised energy systems account for half of electricity production; ten times the rate here in the UK. In decentralised energy systems, electricity is generated locally to use with a distributed grid system. Buildings, instead of being passive consumers of energy, are parts of local energy networks using small scale renewable technologies. Combined with renewables like wind, wave, tidal, solar and biomass, even according to the Department of Trade and Industry, clean energies could provide a quarter of our needs by 2025.
But much easier just to sell our children’s (and the next few generations) future down the river with the solution best geared for keeping shareholder meetings and boardrooms glowing green with happiness – here's to the nuclear family!
* This is the state of play as Britain heads for the international climate conference in Montreal (Nov 28th to Dec 9th), the first meeting since the Kyoto Protocol was ‘agreed’. Another great chance for world leaders to agree to do little but continue profiteering: look out for our forthcoming review in your ever energetic SchNEWS. For more about climate change campaigning in Britain see www.londonrisingtide.org.uk