In honour of Nick Clegg’s visit to Forgemasters today, I thought I would go back and see what Ed Miliband was saying about nuclear power before the election. On 9 November 2009, he told the House:
“We are not going to provide public subsidy for the construction, operation and decommissioning of nuclear power stations.”
(Hat tip: Left Foot Forward)
In response to the announced withdrawal of the Forgemasters loan, Ed went on to say:
“I am horrified by the Tory-Liberal coalition’s decision to withdraw the support promised to Sheffield Forgemasters by the Labour government. It is a sign of a government with a destructive industrial strategy and threatens the timetable for new nuclear in the UK.
“Yesterday Chris Huhne called for an ‘energy revolution’ while Danny Alexander was stopping investment in a British company that is central to producing the infrastructure for nuclear power that we need for a clean energy revolution. The government needs to say how Liberal Democrat opposition to nuclear power led them to target Sheffield Forgemasters.”
I hope that clears his position up in time for the leadership ballot.
Sorry, terribly tribal of me I know to point this out. But it does highlight quite how silly the Labour leadership contenders are behaving at the moment. At what point are they going to start taking more responsibilty?
Two stories to chew over for the nuclear debate:
First is the revelation that the government not only accepts that the nuclear industry should not be required to clean up any nuclear accident, but was surreptitiously planning to change the law to specifically exempt the industry from paying any costs.
But of course, we have nothing to worry about because nuclear is safe, right? In Canada the head of their safety commission has been sacked for doing her job too well. Her insistence that a power plant should remain closed threatened the supply of medical isotopes and the government now plans to change the law to ensure the continued production of such isotopes is part of the Commission’s remit. Never mind the fact that the plant in question doesn’t have two backup cooling pumps that it is required to have in case of an emergency.
So subsidies aren’t subsidies and insisting on safety is dangerous? Such Kafka-esque doublethink hardly helps us have an honest and open debate on the subject.
So the government is to give the green light to nuclear. No surprises there then.
Part of me would like to be an optimist, denounce the green lobby for being apocalyptic, line up with Jim Lovelock and David King and comfort myself that nuclear is a better alternative to coal and gas. I certainly am fairly dismissive about the “danger” argument (although moving a hundredfold more uranium and nuclear waste around the world, which appears to be where we’re headed, does strike me as a significant security threat).
The problem is, I’m simply not convinced by the economics of it all.
A thought has struck me this week: if these plants are really to be built without a penny of government subsidy, with the industry even paying for the clean up costs, it seems to be based on a model that the cost of gas and oil will remain high. John Hutton seems to confirm this:
Analysis of future gas and carbon prices showed nuclear was “affordable and provides one of the cheapest electricity options available to reduce our carbon emissions”.
If that’s the case then it suggests that things like oil shale are likely to remain extremely commercial indeed. Indeed, it suggests an economy in which coal becomes affordable as well (we’re already seeing this happen). In other words it appears to be based on a model where a killing will be made exploiting the most dirty sources of energy imaginable, many of which will counteract the carbon savings by going nuclear. And they won’t take until around 2020 to come on stream.
On the plus side, it also makes numerous renewable sources more viable. But the government is still resisting opening the door for micro-generation through a German-style import tariff, so progress on that will not be driven by thee and me as it is in other countries. And the government also seems reluctant to invest in R&D comparative to even the US which not only will make development take longer but denies us opportunities in terms of jobs and enterprise.
Overall, it is hard to shake the impression that we are pursuing this goal due to a chronic lack of imagination more than anything else. While I normally am the first to defend scientists, I do wish we heard a little less of them in this debate and a little more from the economists.
The Guardian’s expose of DBERR’s response to the EU’s 20% renewable energy target which Tony Blair signed us up to earlier this year is sadly reminiscent of Yes, Minister, replete with calls to reclassify solar panels in Africa and nuclear energy as counting towards our renewable target.
The worst thing about all this is that our partners on the mainland are making us look like chumps. The civil service response to every green target has always been to fudge it; now we are lagging behind to a cringe-making degree. Even if you are a climate change denier, surely decreasing the UK’s dependence on foreign oil has to be a good thing? And how can a relatively land-locked country like Germany be spanking us on windpower? Isn’t that just plain embarrassing?
To catch up, all it takes is the level of spending recommended by the Stern Review, launched with great aplomb by the then-Chancellor last autumn. Instead, we’re ploughing public investment into money pits like the M6.
The tragedy of environmental policy is that for all the rhetoric, our Government isn’t even prepared to do the basics. It then turns around, having sat on its hands, and insists that we have to stick with things like nuclear energy. Sadly, with time pressing, I fear this may be a bullet we can’t afford to dodge, but let’s be clear what this means. Never mind stuff about the safety of plants or disposal of waste, the real thing we should be worrying about is where all that uranium is going to come from if worldwide demand for it trebles (which is a conservative estimate); is switching from foreign oil dependency to foreign uranium dependency really progress? What does this mean for global security? Sadly, I’m not optimistic.
A final point: most of the level of renewable energy across the EU appears to be coming from energy from waste. Perhaps it is time that environmentalist groups who so dislike the oil, gas and nuclear options should start muting their opposition to such a rich potential source of energy?