One developing story I didn’t get around to blogging about over the past couple of weeks is nuclear policy. There have been several stories in the papers recently on this. Most recently, the Nuclear Consultation Working Group issued a damning condemnation of the government’s second consultation on nuclear energy. This is bad news for them as they’ve already had one consultation thrown out in court.
The most bemusing line I’ve read about this was on the front page of the Guardian yesterday was this:
The government is expected to insist it has a mandate. In meetings in the autumn, more than 1,000 people were asked their view of nuclear power after seeing videos and taking part in discussion: 44% said power firms should have the option to build nuclear; 36% said no.
I accept that the first sentence is a journalist’s embellishment. Nonetheless, if the government is claiming a “mandate” it has another thing coming. Nuclear energy, along with Trident and a basket of other important issues, was one of the topics Labour would not mention during the general election, either on the stump or even in the small print of their manifesto. And if they are basing their consultation on the balance of responses received, this would be a government first. Normally, government departments are the first to point out that to do so would be to cede policy to the views of a vocal minority and that they are not statistically signifcant. It would seem to me that it would be unwise to set a precedent on this.
The second nuclear theme is rather more tricky. David King, the Royal Society and the European Commission have come out urging the government to consider reprocessing and using the UK’s stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium. This is a different argument to the standard go nuclear one: we already have tons of the stuff – enough to provide 60% of the UK’s electricity needs until 2060 – and there are serious safety and security implications in just stockpiling the stuff.
Personally speaking, my main objections to going nuclear are geo-political. I simply cannot see any merit in exchanging an oil economy for a uranium one. Most supporters of nuclear seem to think the UK exists in a bubble, that we alone are facing this decision and that there are no economic or security implications for increasing the global demand for uranium by a factor of ten or even one hundred. The prospect of us waging our first “uranium war” or propping up some corrupt African regime simply to ensure security of supply doesn’t exactly entice me (note – I accept the argument that we only have 30 years of supply based on current levels of consumption is bogus; demand creates its own supply. But the truth is we simply do not know how much uranium there is out there or how much it might cost to extract it – the counterargument that you should base future supply of uranium on an oil-based model is, if anything, even more bogus). And the cost appears comparable to investing in renewables to the point where they would become economical. With solar now threatening to, erm, go nuclear, I’m not convinced by the TINA argument that fission is the future. Introduce a UK feed-in tariff before lecturing me about what is or is not possible.
Most of these arguments however do not apply to reprocessing. This is about making the most of our past mistakes, not making new ones. It would be potentially cheaper, and I’m prepared to buy the argument that nuclear buys us time for renewables to develop (so long as investment in renewables goes hand in hand with it).
If this was what the government was pushing, rather than its bleak vision of making the UK economy entirely dependent on a non-renewable substance we don’t produce and have no guarantee of supply over, I’d be more sympathetic.