Global warming won’t save nuclear power

The case for nuclear power won't be won by those hiding behind doomsday fears.

Joe Kaplinsky

Topics Politics

Unlike the burning of fossil fuels, nuclear power does not emit carbon dioxide. Fears about global warming have raised interest in nuclear power, with the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir David King recently giving support to an expansion of nuclear on the basis that it is ‘carbon-free’. He called for more investment in nuclear fusion research, and said that a new generation of existing fission technologies should be an ‘option’.

But while politicians are comfortable talking about nuclear power as an option, they are less happy about it as a solution. Nuclear power does not fit easily into an environmental worldview. So long as global warming is understood as a morality tale about the evils of industrialisation there is little hope that it will inspire a nuclear renaissance.

According to newspaper reports, ‘off the record, both Tory and Labour sources have said that they will tackle the nuclear question head-on after the election’ (1). Don’t hold your breath. Similar reports were heard before both the 1997 and 2001 elections. What is significant about such reports is politicians’ unwillingness to discuss the nuclear question on the record before an election.

This is typical of many debates over controversial scientific issues in the UK. Among politicians and policymakers there is a consensus in favour of half-hearted progress, with nuclear power seen as necessary to fight global warming. But there is no appetite for discussing this in the open, which would mean confronting contradictions and facing down the Greens. So instead of clarification, we have a consensus behind closed doors that allows for endless prevarication and friendly coexistence with environmental campaigners.

The refusal to discuss nuclear power shows up the endless consultation and ‘public participation’ initiatives as the worthless exercises they really are. The Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, whose latest consultation prompted in part the most recent round of discussion, is obsessed with transparency and openness. Although more openness sounds like it could only be a good thing, in practice it leads to a devaluing of expert judgement for fear of alienating the public. Arriving at a conclusion is subordinated to a process of inclusiveness. Consultations appear to set up a self-sustaining chain reaction, with each round leading to recommendations for a further, grander round.

One rival for the openness crown would be NIREX, a company originally set up by the nuclear industry to dispose of radioactive wastes. NIREX is no longer owned by the nuclear industry, but has now become ‘independent’. This allows it to strike a more evenhanded balance between the scientifically informed approach to industry and the doom mongering of environmentalists, without appearing to come down on either side.

It is easy to see how the nuclear industry found itself in this mess. In the 1980s and 90s the industry found that putting forward scientifically sound arguments about safety and efficiency was not sufficient to make its case, at a time when environmentalist ideas were growing. As a result of this experience NIREX shifted the focus of its research away from physics and geology toward sociology. It drew the conclusion that an expert consensus that does not carry public acceptance is practically useless, and so started to elevate inclusion over science.

Unfortunately consensus cannot be forged using the tools of inclusion – focus groups, citizen’s juries or even public consultations. These forms of debate are unable to contain a real clash of ideas – unlike public political debate, they are suitable only for small-scale fudges, accommodations and adjustments. The marginalisation of science makes consensus harder still – with fewer objective facts more is left to subjective disagreement.

We seem to be stuck, then, with politicians who see nuclear power as an essential part of plans to reduce greenhouse emissions but will not say so in public. What will the consequence be?

The idea that nuclear power has a role to play in reducing greenhouse emissions makes sense only if we disregard the mythic dimension of the global warming discourse. Science has established that rising concentrations of greenhouse gases are likely to lead to warmer temperatures. The ‘myth of global warming’, however, goes beyond those facts, interpreting them through a story of man’s arrogant attempts at mastery leading to a revenge of nature. There is no place for nuclear power as a hero in this myth. Rather, nuclear power is the original villain – the hi-tech, scientific, large-scale solution to economic development.

Seen in this light it is apparent that while a higher profile for global warming might give nuclear power a boost, in the end it will hold nuclear energy back. A substantial revival of nuclear power could only occur if the case was made for science and technology contributing to social progress. Without that case being made nuclear technologies will remain hedged in with restrictions, and society will be unable to realise their potential.

As in other areas of technological advance, it is the climate of precautionary regulation that is holding things back. The problems of nuclear power are sometimes put down to economics, especially by environmentalists who want to flaunt their free-market credentials. But this is disingenuous. The last nuclear power station to be built in the UK was Sizewell B; construction started in 1987 after Britain’s longest public inquiry. In today’s political conditions, planning permission would be even more protracted. While the economics of nuclear power are complex, the years of political wrangling that would be required to construct a new power station are a powerful enough disincentive to the private sector.

This point is illustrated in the debate over nuclear waste. Although the debate about nuclear waste has not achieved the high profile of global warming, it has become just as mythologised. Nuclear waste has become an intractable problem only because of the symbolic meaning attributed to it. The increasingly elaborate measures proposed to deal with nuclear waste can only be understood in this way. These measures’ symbolic character ensures that their expense can potentially rise without limit.

For that to change we need a real, on the record, debate.

Joe Kaplinsky is a science writer and coauthor of a forthcoming book on energy.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Energy

(1) Nuclear power?, 29 March 2005

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Topics Politics


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