Friday, 5 September 2008

No nukes is good nukes

The phrase 'dictatorship of oil' has at least two meanings, and when Gordon Brown pledged to end that dictatorship, I'm not entirely sure which of the two he meant. I'm afraid, though, that I suspect it was the wrong one.

If he wants to end our dependence on oil because of a recognition that the world has to move from an economy based on hydrocarbons to a low-carbon future, I'd agree with him. But, although he used the words 'low-carbon', I suspect that he's really reacting more to the way in which oil prices have a lock on our economy, and is looking to free us from that. That's not an unworthy aim in itself; it just isn't the same thing as a recognition of the real problems we face over future energy policy.

His – and others' - continued stress on nuclear energy as part of the future energy mix is something that I just can't accept. It's not that I am opposed to nuclear energy on principle – as I know that some are – I'm just not convinced that it makes economic or environmental sense.

There are a number of arguments for and against nuclear energy, not all of which are purely environmental issues. I know that there are some in the environmental movement who believe that we should now be ready to embrace nuclear energy as the least bad alternative. And almost two years ago, I heard Sir John Houghton speak at a meeting organised by FoE in Narberth, where, as a small part of a very well-made case on man-made global warming, he supported a move to nuclear power. Amongst his other arguments was the suggestion that we have enormous stockpiles of plutonium for nuclear weapons – wouldn't it be better to turn those stocks into electricity and use them peacefully?

It's a strong argument, and disagreeing with one as eminent as Sir John in the field of global warming is not something to be done lightly. But for me, there are still too many unanswered questions over the nuclear option, and without those answers, I am unable to make a sensible judgement as to whether nuclear power is really as low-carbon as some claim.

The fact that the plants themselves are very low-carbon once in operation is only part of the story. The carbon cost of constructing a nuclear power station is significantly higher than the carbon cost of a conventional power station, and then there is the carbon cost of decommissioning the station and dealing with the waste. The problem with this is that we still don't know how we are going to deal with the waste, and without even knowing how, it is impossible to know the cost either in pounds and pennies or in carbon terms. And then there's the carbon cost (and the human cost) of obtaining and processing the fuel to take into account as well.

Whilst I remain willing to listen to the facts and consider the options, I'm simply not convinced at present that the benefits of nuclear energy outweigh the disadvantages. One thing of which I am certain however, is that deciding whether or not to go nuclear is something which affects us all, not just the areas around power stations, since we will all have to face the consequences of disposing of, or simply guarding for thousands of years, the waste produced.

One of my biggest concerns about energy policy is that governments continue to see it as a question of how we obtain vast quantities of energy to carry on as we are. As a consequence, they always seem to be looking for 'big technology'; whether that be nuclear or massive barrages. I think the real issue is how we reduce our demand for energy to a level which can be supplied in a more appropriate fashion.

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