The future of nuclear

Last week’s rowdy spiked/CMP debate pitted die-hard greens against nuclear representatives in a clash of moralities.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Science & Tech

At London’s Royal Institute of British Architects last week, an expert panel debated one of the most pressing issues of the moment: the future of energy. The debate, organised by spiked and Clark Mulder Purdie, focused specifically on the potential of nuclear power to meet future energy needs.

Public discussions about nuclear power all too frequently lose their focus and descend into bewildering exchanges of financial facts and figures. That this discussion avoided such a fate was due in no small part to the ebullient, passionate performances of the speakers. On one side, arguing in favour of nuclear power, were Lord O’Neill, chairman of the Nuclear Industry Association, and James Woudhuysen, professor of innovation at De Montfort University and co-author of Energise, due to be published this autumn. Facing them were the longstanding anti-nuclear campaigner, physicist and prolific author, Frank Barnaby, Friends of the Earth energy campaigner Neil Crumpton, and the co-founder of Quantasol, a solar cell manufacturing company, Keith Barnham. They were ably marshalled by writer and broadcaster, Timandra Harkness.

Neil Crumpton kicked off proceedings by declaring himself, and Friends of the Earth, ‘implacably opposed’ to nuclear power. Not only is it ‘inherently dangerous’, he said, but it only generates four per cent of the UK’s energy. Unfortunately, the UK government, just as with the Iraq war, is in a ‘rush’ towards nuclear power, said Crumpton. And in the process, the potential of the alternatives, from solar power to offshore wind, wave or tidal, is eschewed.

Neil Crumpton of Friends of the Earth

The second speaker, James Woudhuysen, was not convinced by this notion of a ‘rush to nuclear power’, nor the damning-by-association analogy with the Iraq War – comparing a new form of energy provision with the war was an insult to the 400,000 Iraqis killed since 2003, he said.

‘Gordon Brown is not rushing. He is not rushing because indecision is the name of the man’, said Woudhuysen. As for the idea that nuclear power is ‘inherently dangerous’, the preoccupation with safety that pervades discussions of nuclear power is based ‘on the dubious political economy of Chernobyl’, he argued. Moreover, that nuclear power produces only four per cent of the national electricity is no more a refutation of nuclear power than that fact that wind power currently produces just one per cent confounds advocates of alternative technologies.

Undeterred by Woudhuysen’s criticism, Keith Barnham, the third speaker, concentrated on the danger posed by nuclear waste, in particular its radioactive longevity. Citing conversations with fellow scientists, Barnham pronounced that the waste created by just three generations in the nuclear age will become the burden of the next 10,000 generations. Far better to go with the latest solar cells, based on silicon chip technology, said Barnham, before asking who we would rather trust, ‘the industry that gave you the laptop, or that which gave you Chernobyl?’

Keith Barnham, emeritus professor of physics
at Imperial College London

Lord O’Neill, as chairman of the nuclear industry’s trade and information body, was predictably unconvinced. What is important are the ‘technologies that are available to us at the moment’; too many of the renewable technologies hailed are mere prototypes, he said.

As for the putative problem of nuclear waste, he was strident: ‘To say that it is beyond the wit and knowledge of the boffins at Imperial College is one thing [the previous speaker Keith Barnham is an emeritus professor at Imperial], but in Finland, for instance, they are clearly able to deal with nuclear waste. To say that it cannot be dealt with is misleading at best, and malign at worst.’

Last up was Frank Barnaby, who argued that the major driver in energy discussions is global warming. There are two schools of thought on how best to respond to climate change: the first is to seek to change society by encouraging less materialism and less consumerism, and the second is to seek a technological solution. This second is ‘less ambitious’ and, therefore, more ‘realistic’. It is also, he added, the one preferred by Gordon Brown.

After a quick to and fro between the panelists, the discussion moved to the floor. Speaking from the audience, Tom Shea of the Global Nuclear Policy Forum raised what was to become a focal point of discussion: the issue of nuclear waste. He qualified the length at which it remains dangerously radioactive, stating that after 9,000 years nuclear waste still has the same radioactive strength as the uranium before it is mined. Woudhuysen’s fellow author of Energise, Joe Kaplinsky, gave the discussion of waste a different twist. He argued that it is not just the actual waste we leave in the ground that provokes today’s angst-ridden fantasies of ‘future harm’; rather, the miserablist context in which these projections take place is the decisive factor. Hence the legacy of nuclear power is not conceived in terms of its vast historical benefits – ‘of driving civilisation on’ – but in terms of the damage wreaked in general by mankind upon nature and future generations.

This last point was certainly the angle taken by the prominent environmentalist campaigner Mayer Hillman. Speaking from the audience, he began with the apocalyptic refrain that ‘we are close to the point of no return’. But so far, he argued, morality has been entirely absent from the discussion. Are we really willing, he asked, to impose misery upon future generations just to fulfil our present ‘energy-intense lifestyles’? Such complacency is ‘disgusting’. Keith Barnham agreed: ‘Morality is key’, he said.

Lord O’Neill was not so sure morality had a place in the discussion. ‘I’ll leave it to the theologians’, he said. Deputy editor of spiked Rob Lyons was even less moved by the environmentalist plea about protecting future generations: ‘The more I hear about my grandchildren, the more they piss me off’, he said, pointing out that if we don’t act on nuclear now then future generations might ask of us ‘why didn’t you do more to advance humanity?’ rather than the green’s imagined question: ‘why did you destroy our world?’

Other audience members were not as keen as O’Neill to leave morality to the theologians. One argued that morality is important. It is a question of a ‘morality of pessimism or a morality of optimism’. Greens unfortunately err too easily on the side of the morality of pessimism. In doing so, their irrational fears lead them to use two blackmail cards in the debate about nuclear: global warming and terrorism.

The second ‘blackmail card’ of terrorism was a recurrent theme in many of the objections to nuclear power. Yet, with each mention of North Korea or rogue African states, it became clear that what was really at issue in this section of the debate was Western condescension towards the trustworthiness of other states. Mayer Hillman asked if we could trust Iran, North Korea or ‘any African state’ with nuclear power. Frank Barnaby raised similar concerns. In response, Woudhuysen pointed out some glaring double standards: ‘Do I worry about Iran or Mugabe having nuclear weapons? Yeah, but I also worry about Attlee and Truman and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I worry about Hillary Clinton’s threat to annihilate Iran if they attack Israel.’

In other words, we should not withhold from others the fruits of that which we enjoy. As O’Neill argued: ‘The ‘people of Africa are as entitled to an efficient, effective, relatively cheap energy supply as we are.’ And this, despite his protestations to the contrary, shows that there is an element of morality in the nuclear debate. As Malcolm Grimston of Chatham House argued from the floor: ‘If we’re going to talk about morality, we need to talk about how we’re going to supply energy for future generations.’

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked. This debate was part of a series organised in association with Clarke Mulder Purdie. The next debate in the series is Are social networking sites destroying privacy? on Wednesday 24 September 2008 in central London.

Previously on spiked

In the run-up to the spiked seminar on nuclear power, Tim Black asked the speakers whether we need 1,000 nuclear power stations, or none?. Previously, he claimed Britain has become a world leader in dithering on nuclear power. Rob Johnston exposed 10 myths about nuclear power. Joe Kaplinsky demanded that the government put a positive case for nuclear power. Or read more at spiked issue Energy.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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