Uranium dangers

Published in the New Statesman’s special supplement on energy Power for the people, on 24th February 2003.

On 24 January, Tony Blair met a group of ministers and officials in Downing Street to resolve some of the key issues in the long-delayed white paper on energy policy. Among the most difficult of the topics under discussion were the future role of nuclear power in Britain and what response to make to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution’s challenge to reduce Britain’s emissions of carbon dioxide by 60 per cent from 1990 levels by 2050.

There has been a fierce debate within the cabinet on the future role of nuclear power. The virtual collapse of the nuclear operator British Energy late last year has encouraged some ministers to argue that it is time to stop digging this ever deeper pit into which to sink public money. Others argue that nuclear power is essential to maintain Britain’s energy security and to meet our Kyoto targets and the further emissions reductions which will be required beyond that. Treasury neutrality on this divisive issue was emphatically communicated at the Downing Street meeting by the promise that there would be no new money for energy.

In summing up the meeting, the Prime Minister said little about nuclear power, but came down firmly on the side of accepting the need to meet the Royal Commission’s challenge. This is not as startling as it might sound. Germany, which is phasing out its nuclear power stations, has already made a public commitment to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 40 per cent by 2020. France has a goal of a 75 per cent reduction by 2050 and the EU has an aspirational target of 70 per cent by the same date.

Blair’s consistent commitment to tackling climate change is not in doubt. Britain has played a leading part in driving forward the global agenda on this issue and is on target to meet its Kyoto commitments. He has also continued to raise the issue in private discussions with President Bush, though without much positive response.

But environmentalists should not cheer too loudly yet. The Prime Minister has not abandoned his belief in the future of the nuclear industry, another faith he shares with George Bush. He is, or at least was until recently, a master at choosing his moment and carefully shaping his arguments to overcome the most determined opposition.

Last year’s débâcle with British Energy has yet to run its full course. The huge government loan needed to avoid administration for a second major privatised industry is under legal challenge. Even if it were not, British Energy has yet to persuade investors to go along with the restructured company. The prospect of another forced return to public ownership remains real. This is not the moment to try persuading doubting colleagues, or the public, of the wisdom of new nuclear build.

The white paper will actually be a dark fudge colour on nuclear power. Last year’s Energy Review by the Performance and Innovation Unit argued, albeit without conviction, that the nuclear option should be kept open. The white paper seems likely to invite prospective reactor builders to make “pre-licensing applications”. This would allow BNFL to seek a generic licence for a new generation of nuclear reactors without making a specific planning application. Quite how such an approach could be made compatible with the existing regulatory structure remains to be explained.

There will also be a rather vague-sounding commitment to revisit the issue at some future date. Do not be misled. When the memory of the British Energy débâcle has been erased by a convenient war, out will come the climate-change and energy-security clubs to beat the opposition into submission and back will come the calls for new nuclear build.

That Bush and Blair should share an enthusiasm for nuclear power is particularly incomprehensible. Both have risked their political futures on a high-stakes effort to rid the world of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. Saddam may or may not have nuclear weapons but, in common with too many other countries to list, he certainly possesses the capacity to acquire them.

You cannot promote nuclear power without simultaneously promoting the spread of nuclear weapons. Israel, Pakistan, India and South Africa all acquired their nuclear weapons under the guise of peaceful nuclear research. The heavy water for the Indian bomb was provided by the peace-loving Norwegians. It was the careful Dutch who trained the scientists who built Pakistan’s bomb. German technicians helped both the Israelis and the South Africans acquire their weapons of mass destruction – now that’s a linkage to awe the imagination.

As historians of the Manhattan Project have pointed out, its deepest secret was that an atomic bomb could be made at all. Once you knew that, finding out how was only a matter of time and effort.

As the current impasse over North Korea’s nuclear weapons demonstrates, those seeking to build bombs will not all be as easy to disarm by force as Saddam – and some of them will be your friends. South Korea is far more nuclear-capable than North Korea. Given that capability, the likelihood that it has watched its neighbour develop nuclear weapons without taking steps to ensure its own security is vanishingly small – about as likely as it was that Pakistan would simply watch as India built its bomb in the Eighties.

The nuclear genie may indeed be out of the bottle but that is not an argument for encouraging it to grow bigger, especially since neither of the arguments – energy security and climate change – used by the cabinet’s nuclear enthusiasts stands close examination. No one in the half-century of nuclear power in Britain has ever built a nuclear reactor on time and to budget. Indeed, it is not clear that anyone anywhere has done so. The French are the best candidates, but their accounting methods are so opaque that in practice it is anyone’s guess. This is not much of a foundation on which to rest two of the central pillars of 21st-century energy policy.

Energy security is properly an increasing preoccupation of governments everywhere. The most urgent area of energy security is the world’s phenomenal, and growing, dependence on Middle Eastern oil for transport fuels. This already seriously limits Britain’s diplomatic freedom of action in the region. It also creates a little-noticed dependence on the continued willingness of American governments to ask their taxpayers to fork out the dollar a gallon it costs to keep the US forces needed to ensure the oil keeps flowing.

The fuel protests gave Britain a timely taste of what this kind of energy insecurity looks like. Modern logistics systems mean few major businesses carry much stock. Interrupt the fuel supplies and business quickly comes to a halt. There is plenty of food or essential parts and resources, but unfortunately they are nowhere near anyone who needs them. Our dependence on a reliable supply of transport fuels is great but there is nothing much that nuclear electricity can do now to reduce it.

There are nuclear dreamers who see rescue in the shape of a future move to hydrogen as our main transport fuel. This, they believe, would need nuclear electricity to provide climate-friendly hydrogen. But it is at least as likely that carbon sequestration or the renewables can provide a reliable pathway to that goal with the added advantage of not requiring the government to tear up its existing electricity policy. The City had made it clear, even before the full extent of the British Energy mess became known, that it would not finance new nuclear build without substantial support from government in the form of subsidies or taxes on other electricity sources. If the taxpayer is to pay for nuclear, why shouldn’t he pay for combined heat and power, wind or energy efficiency, which offer greater value for money and reduce carbon dioxide emissions?

The reality is that nuclear power burns money far better than it burns uranium. It is a distraction that squeezes out other options. OECD governments between them spent $159bn on nuclear research in the 14 years up until 1998. That amount spent on energy efficiency and renewables would have set us well on the path to energy and climate security by now. There is no nuclear option, and even if there were, national security concerns would require us not to take it.

About tomburke

Tom Burke is the Chairman of E3G, Third Generation Environmentalism, and an Environmental Policy Adviser (part time) to Rio Tinto plc. He is a Visiting Professor at both Imperial and University Colleges, London. He is a member of the External Review Committee of Shell and the Sustainable Sourcing Advisory Board of Unilever and a Trustee of the Black-E Community Arts Project, Liverpool.
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