NUCLEAR IS NOT LOW-CARBON: The failure of our political system to see through the nuclear spin
So, the Cabinet has (yesterday) spinelessly given the unanimous go-ahead for our kingdom to ‘go nuclear’ once again (http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601102&sid=arArd6CQxfXk&refer=uk ). The formal Parliamentary announcement that New Labour is taking the nuclear (power) option will come tomorrow. But we have known for years a few years now that this was a fait accompli, the consultation(s) a sham (http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/climate/greenpeace-formal-complaint-to-mrsc-over-nuclear-power-consultation ).
What made it a fait accompli? The excuse that nuclear power is ‘low-carbon’, at a time when the government is desperately trying to present itself as serious about manmade climate change.
The government is busy bribing local communities to mortgage their futures to take in what will be a huge tranche of new nuclear waste under their roofs (http://news.independent.co.uk/uk/politics/article3312836.ece ). But the key issues which no-one is facing are: given that there is no solution still to the nuclear waste problem, and that that waste will be around for hundreds of thousands of years, how can nuclear possibly be economic? And how can it possibly be low-carbon? The failure to face these issues indicts the British political system.
Because we have to assume that even a very small amount of effort and oversight needed to keep that waste safe for thousands of human generations will cumulatively add up to a very large amount of money and a very large amount of CO2 emissions. (For a back of the envelope calculation on the devastatingly large amount of energy and carbon this would result in, see my blogpost at http://rupertsread.blogspot.com/2008/01/cumulative-co2-emissions-of-nuclear.html ; for a more scientifically-solid and much fuller version of the same, see David Fleming’s masterful report at http://www.theleaneconomyconnection.net/nuclear/Nuclear.pdf .)
It is often said that nuclear energy has about one third the carbon emissions of standard gas-fired fossil fuel sources. But the 'one third' figure is garbage because it simply excludes long-term decommissioning, monitoring etc. costs, the costs laid out at the websites just referred to. If these costs are included at all, in cost-benefit analyses, they are within a generation or two 'discounted' to virtually zero -- but that practice of 'discounting' assumes permanent economic growth! Is it really plausible to think that the problem that mathematically illustrated at the sites just referred to would be sidestepped by permanent economic growth? Only if one believes, insanely, that there are no ecological limits for the economy to reckon with. For instance, limits to the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb CO2…
A proper full calculation of 'lifetime' costs (i.e. the lifetime of the WASTE) shows a very HIGH amount of carbon coming from nuclear power generation. The emperor has no clothes -- any truly-long-term perspective surely shows that nuclear is simply NOT a low-carbon fuel (and nor is it ‘economic’). When Labour announce tomorrow that they are going ahead with building a new generation of nuclear power plants, they will not only be creating a deadly dangerous distraction, but doing it in the name of stopping dangerous climate change – which nuclear, for the reasons outlined here, cannot do.
If they were sincere about that goal, rather than being in the pockets of and in cahoots with a very well-financed and subsidy-hungry nuclear lobby (see www.nuclearspin.org , where this claim is evidenced), they would pour their effort and money and political capital into renewables, instead.
Am I really asserting that this government is cynically uninterested in doing anything effective to stop climate chaos? No. The underlying problem is that ‘mainstream’ politics in this country is wedded to the neo-liberal paradigm of political economy, and ‘environmentalism’ is added to that only as a kind of bolt-on. ‘Environmentalism’ can never deliver the transformation of our polity that is required. For that, we need ecologism, instead – a wholistic reassessment of our way of life. And this concept is just beyond the ken of Brown or Cameron. Looking for a ‘big-science’ techno-fix solution (of which nuclear is a classic example) is potentially compatible with environmentalism, but not with ecologism. Thus the receptiveness of the ears of our government to the siren song of the nuclearites -- while pitifully small programmes of grants for renewable energy projects run out hours after they are launched.
Environmentalism tries to care about the environment within the constraints of a system which despoils it. Ecologism plans wholistically and long-term from the beginning to avoid such despoliation. Most of the negative effects of nuclear power will come in the dreadful virtually-interminable legacy we risk leaving behind us, of waste and the waste of money and energy and lives that it will create. Our short-termist political system is ill-suited to the prevention of such waste. To become a truly long-termist, genuinely sustainable, ecological political system would require huge changes, beginning with the creation of democratic mechanisms to include the interests and needs of the untold generations of human beings who are as yet unborn. I hope to return to what those mechanisms might consist in, in a future post…
(A version of this post has also just been put online on OUR KINGDOM: http://ourkingdom.opendemocracy.net/2008/01/09/our-short-termist-polity-was-always-going-to-go-nuclear/ . If you want to make a comment, I strongly suggest making it there (as well as here), to hit the widest possible audience.)