Too Hot Too Handle? The Future of Civil Nuclear Power

Foreword

In the 1970s we used to say that if nuclear power was the answer, it must have been a very silly question. But as Britain’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted on saying at every opportunity he had, nuclear power is back on the agenda ‘with a vengeance’. It is not that nuclear power has changed much in its basic characteristics - it is still the same inherently dangerous, though immensely powerful, process that it always was. It is just that it has found a new question, that of climate change, to which it can pose as the answer. In the words of the great organisational theorists Cohen, March and Olsen nuclear power is ‘an answer actively looking for a question’.

If one were to set out to design from scratch a solution for the problem of climate change in a world without nuclear power, there is little chance that anyone would come up with nuclear power as that solution, or, if they did, that anyone would think that nuclear power was anywhere near acceptable. It would look simply too risky to try, especially in comparison with all the other options, from energy saving to renewable energy and carbon capture and storage. Technological progress will undoubtedly form part of the world’s response to climate change, but not all novelties constitute progress. And yet acceptance of nuclear power is growing. That is partly because some people believe the myth that without nuclear power, the lights will go out or that we will have to return to medieval levels of energy usage - a claim particularly absurd in a country such as Britain in which the potential for renewable power vastly exceeds current electricity consumption. But it is also partly because many people seem to have forgotten about nuclear power’s inherent problems. That is why Frank Barnaby and James Kemp’s work is so much to be welcomed. They remind us about what makes nuclear power more of a problem than a solution.

They make important new points, such as the infeasible rate of building new nuclear power stations that would be needed for a nuclear renaissance to make much of a global difference, alongside restating older points, such as the problem of the declining quality of uranium ore that undermines some of the more extravagant claims about nuclear power’s low carbon footprint. But above all, they analyse in convincing and sometimes alarming detail the problems of international and domestic security that a worldwide revival in nuclear power would pose. An international nuclear renaissance, especially if it moves in the direction that nuclear enthusiasts want of using MOX fuel and of developing fast-breeder reactors, will lead to very great dangers indeed in terms of nuclear weapons proliferation and the threat of terrorist action.

Apologists for nuclear power sometimes say that they doubt whether a pro-nuclear decision in Britain will make much difference to whether the rest of the world goes nuclear. That is a dangerous argument. It is the same as that used by those who say that since Britain is the source of only 2% of world greenhouse gas emissions, we should do nothing about climate change. Its use by the nuclear lobby makes one doubt the sincerity of their claim to be concerned about climate change in the first place. It is also wrong. What possible standing can we have to ask other countries to restrain themselves if we ourselves refuse to do so? Britain is admittedly no longer a great power. It can no longer require anyone to do anything. But it can try to regain at least some semblance of moral leadership.

Nuclear power is unique. It is the only form of electricity production that in itself poses a threat to international peace and domestic security. It is also, as a consequence of its dangers and of the secrecy that inevitably surrounds it because of its connections with nuclear weapons, the only form of electricity production that in itself poses a threat to individual liberties. Those who advocate it might not care about peace or freedom, but for those of us who do, we cannot say that we were not warned.

David Howarth MP
Liberal Democrat Shadow Energy Spokesperson, June 2007

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