Nuclear power would appear to have acquired the power to destroy logic

Some people worry about nuclear power because they fear the risks to human health from radioactivity. Others are concerned about the morality of leaving a legacy of radioactive wastes that will be dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years. Others again are concerned about the risks of proliferating nuclear weapons since no-one has yet found a way to make atoms work for peace without also making them available for war.

These are all legitimate concerns but what has begun to trouble me more recently is the impact of nuclear power on the ability of some people to reason. Nuclear power seems to have acquired the power to destroy logic. In its presence otherwise intelligent, highly educated, well informed people in responsible positions seem to lose all power to reason logically.

Take David King, for example. He was the Government’s Chief Scientist during the Blair years. He is famous for having gone to Washington and told the Bush Administration, rightly, that climate change was a more serious threat than terrorism. Yesterday he was quoted by Bloomberg as arguing that without nuclear power the lights could be going out within five years.

Chris Huhne was clear earlier this year that there is no risk of the lights going out – in fact we are currently shutting down gas stations because we don’t need to run them. Even so, if you started building new a nuclear power station tomorrow and, in the unlikely event that you built it on time and to budget, it would not be supplying electricity within five years and could not be helping to keep the lights on.

Tim Yeo is a robust and effective Chairman of the Energy and Climate Committee. He has had some real experience in business so does understand how markets actually work. Initially something of a nuclear sceptic he has recently become a vigorous promoter of new nuclear in order to tackle climate change. He now thinks we should pay whatever it costs to subsidise them.

But he is also an opponent of the dominance of Britain’s electricity market by the so-called ‘Big Six’ utilities. He regards them, correctly, as a barrier to competition and as offering their customers a bad deal. He wants to see their dominance broken up and has called for this to be a goal of the Government’s Energy Bill.

Nuclear reactors start at about £7 billion a piece. This has already proved too big a burden for some of the ‘Big Six’ who have withdrawn their nuclear plans. Mr Yeo has yet to explain who could afford to pay for new nuclear power stations if he were to succeed in his ambition of breaking up the monopolistic dominance of the ‘Big Six’.

The ability of nuclear power to destroy logic was also displayed yesterday by the Energy Secretary himself. Throughout the day he repeatedly asserted that nuclear power was the cheapest way to decarbonise the British economy. It has long been acknowledged that off-shore wind is expensive. Its electricity currently costs about £135/MWh. Many commentators have argued that this is much too expensive and should be abandoned. 

As a report from Citi last week showed, assuming nuclear power stations are built on time and to budget, something that has not so far been possible for the type of reactor EDF want to build in Britain, their electricity would cost £166/MWh. I find it difficult to follow the logic that allows someone to argue that something that is £31/MWh more expensive is really cheaper. Maybe Ed Davey should change his name to Alice.

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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