Nuclear lethargy

Why is the government dragging its heels on building new nuclear power stations?

Joe Kaplinsky

Topics Science & Tech

For all the worry about the future of energy supply – from running out of oil and gas to global warming – you might think that the UK government would be more enthusiastic about building a new generation of nuclear power stations. Yet while sporadic sounds of enthusiasm emerge from Blair and his advisors, official policy remains firmly agnostic. The justification is that nuclear power is a touchy subject with the public, and that endorsement by mistrusted politicians would be the kiss of death.

There is certainly a public case to be made for nuclear power, which might start with some basic facts. According to a Populus poll published in The Times on 8 August, 79 per cent of people believe that renewable energy such as wind and wave could replace imports of oil and gas. Only 18 per cent believe that nuclear power could play that role (1). But at current rates of growth it would take three decades for renewables to replace the present contribution of nuclear, let alone the contribution of gas (2).

The accompanying Times Leader was to the point: ‘so long as politicians fight shy of the topic, as Labour has done, so long will people suspect the worst… all the British public has to go by is an unsatisfactorily ambiguous 2003 White Paper that, without ruling out nuclear energy, led people to believe, mistakenly, that energy-saving combined with renewable energy could plug the yawing gap between supply and demand.’ (3)

The soul searching by politicians over public acceptance is in reality a projection of their own anxieties. No doubt a proposal to build new nuclear power stations would prove controversial. But that is to say no more than that there is an argument to be won. Instead of argument we are offered the ‘fullest public consultation’.

In contrast to the government’s non-position on nuclear power, it is happy to hector us about the need to change our lifestyles and break our ‘addiction’ to energy consumption. Such harassment hardly seems likely to win public favour.

Perhaps the government hopes that one day it will work up the courage to propose expanding nuclear – expressed in its commitment to ‘keep the nuclear option open’ (4). The official view is that a ‘range of skills and research initiatives will have a key role to play in maintaining the expertise needed to keep nuclear power as a future option’. But jargon-laden waffle will not inspire a new generation of nuclear engineers. How can we expect young people to choose a career in the field when the government cannot even say with confidence that nuclear power has a future?

The Department of Trade and Industry nuclear energy webpage uses for a logo a tastefully lit radiation hazard warning sign (5). Unfortunately many working in the nuclear industry seem little more enthusiastic. The latest research breakthrough reported by the UK Atomic Energy Authority is ‘permanent’ paper to record the details of nuclear waste for future generations. The invention is modelled on scrolls from the time of the Pharaohs, on the grounds that they survived the destruction of ancient Egypt (6). The idea that scientists should spend their time enabling civilisation to rise to the next level, rather than planning for its collapse, seems not to enjoy the same popularity.

Instead of trying to put its case, the nuclear industry is backing new laws against protesters. British Energy is enthusiastic about proposals by Roger Brunt, the UK director of civil nuclear security, to outlaw unauthorised entry to nuclear sites. Greenpeace’s response, that there are enough laws already, seems reasonable for once (7).

Greenpeace added that ‘if terrorists targeted a nuclear power station with its stores of dangerous radioactive material, they could spread fallout for miles around… ultimately we have to stop producing nuclear waste’ (8). Here is an argument that could have some resonance with the public. British Energy might consider whether passing laws to stifle opposition is the most effective way to counter it. It might also consider whether it is Greenpeace or the government that has spread the idea that we should reorganise Britain around the threat of terror.

The private sector is unable to take a lead in championing nuclear energy. An industry association, the Energy Intensive Users Group, met with energy minister Malcolm Wicks in July 2005 to express its concern over seeming policy drift. After the meeting Stuart Chambers, the chief executive of glass manufacturer Pilkington, told the Telegraph that the ‘one thing industry can’t do without government help is embrace alternatives like nuclear energy. The one issue I think that the government has underestimated is the capacity of the public and of voters to embrace nuclear’ (9).

In part, industry’s reluctance to go it alone on nuclear is a simple reflection of the leading role that the state plays in regulating energy production. Despite privatisations, practical decisions on the future of nuclear power are in government hands.

It is also the case that many are put off by the long-term nature of the investment required by nuclear power. The large up-front costs of a nuclear power station form a larger part of the investment than the ongoing costs of supplying fuel. This sort of proposition is not highly valued in today’s short-termist business world.

Nuclear power has now become a political issue. It has come to embody many of today’s fears that the use of technology is an inherently risky and destructive business. This is an outlook that is holding back social and technological experimentation, and it deserves to be challenged.

It is clear that the pursuit of nuclear technology is essential for many other fields, from medicine to materials science, and that it is a tremendous energy resource. Its economic potential will be unclear until society decides that it is worth finding out. So long as our politicians are even more afraid of being honest with the public than they are of nuclear meltdown, this is unlikely to happen.

Joe Kaplinsky is a patent and technology analyst.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Energy

(1) ‘Voters prefer wind farms to new nuclear reactors’, Angela Jameson, The Times, 8 August 2005

(2) Fuel input for electricity generation 1970 to 2004, Department of Trade and Industry

(3) ‘Nucleus of the problem’, The Times, 8 August 2005

(4) Keeping the nuclear option open, Department of Trade and Industry

(5) Nuclear sector, Department of Trade and Industry

(6) ‘Permanent’ paper records radioactive waste for tomorrow’s world, United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, 1 August 2005

(7) Nuclear industry demands new laws to ban protest break-ins, Rob Edwards, Sunday Herald, 31 July 2005

(8) Nuclear industry demands new laws to ban protest break-ins, Rob Edwards, Sunday Herald, 31 July 2005

(9) The big chill, Sylvia Pfeifer, Sunday Telegraph, 24 July 2005

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Topics Science & Tech


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