No clear policies on nuclear energy

From global warming to 'war for oil', the political debate about energy has become a morally loaded rather than a technical one.

Joe Kaplinsky

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According to off-the-record reports, UK prime minister Tony Blair is planning to open a discussion on nuclear power – but not until after the election. Just what has happened to the political debate about energy?

Energy has become an important area of policy, with almost every sector of the economy undergoing new forms of energy-saving regulation. Government-backed campaigns tell us that we should ‘do our bit’ to fight climate change, which includes rethinking everything from how we boil a kettle and have a bath to where we go on holiday. The Labour manifesto lays out some of its plans to go further in this direction, proposing tighter building regulations and regulating emissions from air travel. But none of the other parties is challenging Labour’s assumptions.

The Labour manifesto lays out a balance between fears of global warming and fears of running out of energy: ‘Our wider energy policy has created a framework that places the challenge of climate change – as well as the need to achieve security of supply – at the heart of our energy policy.’ It is hard to discern how the Conservatives differ – they offer to ‘guarantee the security and sustainability of Britain’s energy supplies. We will do this by supporting the development of a broad range of renewable energy sources. We also recognise that energy efficiency must play an increasingly important role in our energy policy’.

The Liberal Democrats (the self-styled ‘REAL alternative’) just take Labour’s targets and push them a little further – which, without the faintest chance of actually having to implement their policies, they are free to do. They also go furthest in seeing everything from pensioner poverty to international development in terms of energy, with a Green Action pledge on every page.

The fringe parties offer some variation – but none offers a policy built around expanding supply to meet human need. Of these six statements, try sorting out which two came from the Green Party, which two from RESPECT, and which two from the British National Party (BNP):

— ‘Britain’s overall transport policy will inevitably be shaped over the next few decades by the growing worldwide energy crisis caused by the peaking and subsequent decline of oil production coinciding with increasing demand in the rapidly industrialising economies of Asia.’

— ‘We will never again involve British troops in any more American “wars for oil”’

— ‘Continued reliance on industrial and agricultural processes that use up natural resources and produce ever-increasing amounts of pollution and waste is unsustainable.’

— ‘No return to nuclear energy, close all nuclear plants.’

— ‘The effects of global warming and climate change are spiralling out of control…both governmental and corporate response to this challenge has been woefully inadequate. Even the modest provisions of the Kyoto Protocol (which would not by themselves resolve the problem) are flouted, most notably by the oil-dominated Bush administration.’

— ‘The war in Iraq illustrates fundamental problems with current British foreign policy, which is increasingly driven by militarism, neo-conservative strategies for armed pre-emptive strikes and a misguided faith in the ‘special relationship’ with the USA. The UK’s continuing need to secure long-term oil and gas supplies only serves to exacerbate this process.’

The only party prepared to stand up for nuclear power is the UK Independence Party (UKIP) – as it says, we should learn from the French. Unfortunately UKIP’s policy is built (as with those of both the BNP and the Green Party) around minimising British dependence on overseas energy. This goal, which is as foolish as it is futile, dovetails with anti-American and anti-globalisation sentiments.

From climate change to the supposed ‘war for oil’, energy use is no longer seen as a technical question – instead, it is treated with moral opprobrium. Environmentalists such as Richard Heinberg measure energy use not in Giga-joules or barrels of oil, but in ‘energy slaves’, the number of humans it would take to do the equivalent work (1). This is why the Labour manifesto proposes tighter rules on transparency for the development of oil and mining in the third world: fossil fuels are seen to be especially corrupting.

When energy policy is justified not only by science but also by moral righteousness, important questions go unasked. A good example is the commitment to reform the farming subsidies of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which is widely seen as a failure. Labour’s proposal for growing ‘biofuels’ would amount to a new system of subsidies – such fuels would be unlikely to produce more energy than went into growing them. Yet because the scheme is proposed in the politically correct name of fighting global warming it gets a free pass.

Similarly unquestioned is the idea that fighting climate change is an essential contribution to the developing world. In real terms, holding back climate change will make a small contribution to welfare compared to the enormous gains that could be made from wide-scale industrialisation. Yet this is just the sort of development that is stigmatised by campaigners against greenhouse emissions.

If it is true that Blair plans to expand nuclear power after the election (2), this is an important and potentially positive development that would benefit from public scrutiny and discussion. Sadly there is no mention of these plans in the Labour manifesto, so this is not possible. But of course putting the plans in the manifesto would mean having to justify them to voters.

(1) Richard Heinberg, The Party’s Over, 2003. The idea of ‘energy slaves’ was first put forward by Ivan Illich in Energy and Equality, 1978

(2) Nuclear power? Yes please, says Blair, Marie Woolf and Andrew Grice, Independent, 23 April 2005

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