Thursday, 13 May 2010

LibDem U-turn on nuclear power?

The coalition government's policy on new nuclear power stations is being reported as a U-turn for the LibDems.

In fact, though, I saw Vince Cable on the telly before the election already saying that, for his part, opposition to nuclear power was not ideological but economic. Nuclear power is fantastically expensive if you include all the building and decommissioning costs. His main concern was that it should not be subsidised by the taxpayer (as it always has been up to now). And that proviso remains, it seems, in the new government's approach. If they stick with that, the likelihood is that no nuclear power stations will get built in any case, so this "U-turn" looks a bit like a distinction without a difference.

I must admit I have long been a bit of a wobbler on this issue, and was never absolutely sure that the LibDems (still less the Greens) had got it right. If we look out to the medium and long term, the looming world energy crisis might mean we are going to need all the (carbon-free) energy sources we can get -- the James Lovelock view.

Where I know I differ fundamentally from most of the pro-nuclear lobby is that nuclear must not be seen as a substitute for renewables. On this view, it is an either/or question, hence the appearance of people paid by the nuclear industry, such as Sir Bernard Ingham, in the ranks of the anti-windfarm fanatics. The danger is that if the spotlight is shifted from renewables to nuclear, it provides an excuse for not bothering to pursue wind, wave and solar energy. (Which reminds me, how is the Severn Barrage study coming along?)

One point I have never seen mentioned relates to the (probably slight) danger of a Chernobyl-style nuclear accident releasing a vast radioactive cloud into the atmosphere. And it is this: What is the point of the UK not pursuing nuclear energy on those grounds, unless our nearest neighbours are going to do the same? France and Belgium already get most of their electricity from nuclear, and are completely signed up to developing it further. Radioactive clouds do not respect national boundaries. Furthermore, Germany and Sweden are, I believe, already rowing back on earlier Green-inspired commitments to phase out nuclear power.

I don't much like it, and maybe we won't need it, but I don't see any point in expending political capital on empty gestures.

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