Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Using the wrong arguments

Last week, the Druid hosted a keen debate about Wylfa B after posting on the government’s attitude to a consumer-funded levy. It looks increasingly as though the framework being set by the UK Government for a new generation of nuclear power stations makes the proposed Wylfa B an unlikely prospect.

If the power station never gets built as a result, I’d see that as good news; but it seems to me to be the wrong reason for stopping the development – just as most of those arguing in favour seem to me to be using the wrong arguments. I suppose there’s a certain irony there, though. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with subsidising nuclear power if we think it’s the right energy policy - after all, we subsidise renewables on that basis.

But I've never understood why so many of those who support the building of new nuclear power stations do so primarily on the basis of the jobs it would create. I think I could make a much stronger case on other grounds.

It's not that it wouldn't bring good, well-paid jobs; nor that we don't need such jobs. It's more that those jobs could equally be provided on the basis of a policy of using renewable energy, so the need for jobs is not a valid argument for favouring one energy policy over another. Coal mining also provides jobs; but it's not a reason to build new coal-fired power stations.

There are a number of arguments against nuclear energy. For me the single most important one has long been that we simply don't have a worked out solution to the issue of nuclear waste. (And, associated with that, there is the little matter of economics. If we don't know what we're going to do with the waste, we don't know what it's going to cost either – and that means that we really don't know the cost of nuclear energy. I am utterly convinced that, whatever the politicians say, the taxpayer will end up picking up the cost for decommissioning and waste management.)

But there are arguments in favour as well, and if I was going to make a case for supporting a new nuclear station, I'd make it on the basis of energy security and on environmental grounds, not jobs. I still don't personally believe the case to be strong enough, mind; but I'm conscious that I'd then have to argue against the likes of James Loveluck and Sir John Houghton, both of whom have come to the conclusion that nuclear energy is something we have to embrace. And I've certainly heard Sir John make a powerful case.

What would it take to convince me?

I have to admit that I'd start to waver a little if the UK Government were to announce that it would decommission all the UK's nuclear weapons and use the plutonium therein as a nuclear fuel. That would be a real case of 'swords into plough shares'.

It still wouldn't be enough though. What I would really need is to be satisfied about the management and disposal of waste; and we're nowhere near achieving that. Without that, the abiding problem of nuclear energy is that we buy plentiful secure electricity today at the cost of leaving a dangerous and costly legacy to the future. And that's why I believe that it's still right to argue against nuclear energy.

6 comments:

glynbeddau said...

Surely the real test for nuclear power comes when the authorities build one in or next to a major city. If they are as safe as they claim then there would be no problem. The main reason why both Wylfa and Trawsfynedd were built is their distance fro major areas of population. British Governments have never been so benevolent to build them in order to bring employment to these areas.

A Nuclear Power Plant for London who would propose that ?

John Dixon said...

Safety is a difficult issue to assess. Like all man-made installations, there is always a probability of failure, but it's very low. The problem is that a low probability failure can have huge impact. There is a balance between 'low-risk - high impact' or 'higher risk - lower impact' alternatives.

The Druid of Anglesey said...

As always a thought provoking piece, John.

"But I've never understood why so many of those who support the building of new nuclear power stations do so primarily on the basis of the jobs it would create."

If you are referring to the debate on my site then I think its fairly obvious that 'jobs' would figure highly on the minds on Anglesey residents discussing a possible Wylfa B.

"Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with subsidising nuclear power if we think it’s the right energy policy - after all, we subsidise renewables on that basis."

This is what I imagine will happen in the end anyway. We are currently in the 'poker' stage between the government and potential developers, at some point the government will be forced to water down its opposition to some kind of subsidy (no doubt called something else) in order to keep the lights on.

John Dixon said...

Druid,

"If you are referring to the debate on my site"

Not exclusively so! I have others in mind as well...

"This is what I imagine will happen in the end anyway."

And on that, I think we're more or less in agreement. If new nuclear plant is built, it will be subsidised - how and when is another question, but that there will be a subsidy in some form is in my view inevitable.

My point, though, is that that isn't the right basis on which to debate whether we should build them or not. For me, although the cost is probably large and has to be a factor in any informed debate, the mere fact of there being a subsidy isn't the killer argument.

glynbeddau said...

John
"there is always a probability of failure, but it's very low".

Chernobyl, Three Mile Island?

John Dixon said...

Glyn,

I didn't say that there was no possibility of failure, just that the probability was low. Naming specific events isn't really an answer to that point - I could give you a much longer list of failures in conventional power plant.

The statisticians tell us that there's quite a high probability of any individual being killed by an asteroid striking earth. The reason behind that is that the probability of the incident is low, but the impact of the event if it does happen is high. Something similar applies to nuclear power stations - the probability of an incident is low, but the impact is potentially very high.

I'm not saying that there isn't a safety argument around the construction and operation of nuclear power stations, merely that I find it difficult to assign a weighting to that argument as compared to other arguments which I think are much more clear cut. So I choose to concentrate on those elements which I feel to be most clear cut.