TCS Daily


Energy in the UK

By Peter Nolan - December 19, 2005 12:00 AM

With prices for oil and natural gas reaching record highs, the British government and Prime Minister Tony Blair have suddenly woken up to the fact that, for all its day-dreaming about climate change, it has no real energy policy. Now with Britain in imminent danger of shutting down for lack of natural gas, common sense on nuclear power is in short supply. Decades of vilification by environmentalists has left nuclear power with a severe image problem.

As any farmer will tell you, high prices are usually the best fertilizer. After the OPEC oil shocks of the seventies, nuclear power became more popular, especially in nations such as Japan and France which lack reliable oil and gas supplies close to home. Having lost its former colonies in North Africa, France embarked on a major investment in nuclear power, which now provides about 80 percent of its electricity, almost four times its share in Britain.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, drawn up in the much more carefree days of the 1990s, most states in the EU have already committed to bring down their carbon dioxide emissions to 8 percent below the 1990 level by 2012. The new EU trading system for carbon-dioxide emissions, which allows heavy energy users such as power generators to buy the permits to make greenhouse gas emissions from a pool limited by the size of a national quota, became operational at the beginning of 2005.

Britain's Labour government has been particularly passionate about what it sees as the overwhelming importance of climate change, putting it at the top of the list of priorities when outlining its energy policy. Not only is it seeking to limit emissions to the Kyoto floor, but to have cuts going beyond it by an aggressive bet on renewable energy. In January 2000, it set the objective for renewable sources, with wind power so far looking the most promising candidate, to supply 10 percent of UK electricity in 2010.

With alternative power roughly three times as expensive as existing conventional methods, subsidies of £1 billion a year have been projected to come from higher prices paid by electricity users. The 2003 energy white paper goes even further, committing Britain to a target of 20 percent of electricity generated through renewable sources such as wind and solar power by 2020.

Rainy Britain is blessed by nature with many things, but abundant sunshine is not one of them. Manufacturing industry has long argued that the government's emphasis on renewable energy is misplaced. Without oil and gas, nuclear power remains the generating technology with the most promise. Furthermore, even reaching the ambitious 20 percent target for renewables will not be enough to replace the 21 percent of electricity provided by Britain's aging nuclear capacity that will be reaching the end of its useful life over the same time period.

Environmentalists, most famously the former NASA biologist James Lovelock, best-known as father of the Gaia theory, have also spoken out in support of nuclear power. Prime Minister Blair has given hints of conceding the case and working to ensure that the planning system does not unnecessarily prolong the development of new nuclear capacity. Unfortunately, not everybody is so reasonable, with most of the UK's environmental pressure groups bitterly opposed to new nuclear build.

Last month, Robert May, the former chief scientific advisor to the British government and president of the Royal Society, warned against the dangers that irrationality and fundamentalism, whether in religious or secular forms, poses to rational scientific enquiry.

"Many people and institutions have always found such questioning, attended often by unavoidable certainties, less comfortable than the authoritarian certitudes of dogma or revelation," May said. "But the values of the Enlightenment have on balance made the world a better place. They have, in the words of that splendidly archetypal document of the Enlightenment, the American Constitution, enhanced life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

May singled out opponents of nuclear power as being among these modern enemies of scientific rationality: "Fundamentalism doesn't necessarily derive from a sacred text. There are also NGOs [non-governmental organizations] that are reluctant to weigh one problem against another, but have a subset of problems that are absolute and undiscussable... I recognize there are huge problems with nuclear, but these have to be weighed against other problems. This has to be recognized as a problem by what you might call a fundamentalist belief system."

In his essay, Looking Backward from 2000, published 35 years ago (and now almost impossible to obtain), Stanford biologist and doom-mongering author of The Population Bomb Paul Ehrlich pioneered this bitter enmity. He wrote of his imagined future America where only 23 million people survived after nuclear power plant accidents.

Ehrlich's forecasts were somewhat wide of the mark. America's most serious nuclear incident so far occurred at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania in 1979. According to an independent National Institutes of Health report "the projected number of excess fatal cancers due to the accident ... is approximately one". Indeed, the deadliest effect may not have been radiation, but instead anxiety: "[t]he major health effect of the accident appears to have been on the mental health of the people living in the region of Three Mile Island and of the workers..." With a forecasting record like this, it's hardly surprising that Ehrlich is also a recipient of a "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation, as are some other prominent Jeremiahs; these awards themselves might be in danger of becoming better-funded versions of the IgNobel prizes for those who suffer from the reverse of Cassandra's curse -- being widely-believed in spite of never foreseeing the future.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) agitates against nuclear power in Britain, on the grounds that it encourages the development of nuclear weapons. However, for some strange reason, even though the country has enormous oil and gas reserves and a long history of dictatorship and terrorism, they seem more forgiving of Iran, even having the ambassador come to speak at their conference.

However, the current nuclear debate got onto the front pages for the first time recently when two Greenpeace activists interrupted a speech by Tony Blair to the Confederation of British Industry. Two acrobatic agitators clambered up into the rafters of the hall without using ropes of any sort and unfurled their banner, which seemed to contain the limit of their contribution: "Nuclear: Wrong Answer." While aerobic exercise is an indispensable part of a healthy lifestyle, what if they had fallen during their protest? Doesn't a stunt like this risk more danger than the nuclear industry has?

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3 Comments

You cite to Three Mile Island and not Chernobyl?
While TMI may have caused all of one excess cancer mortality, Chernobyl is the disaster everyone fears - and it kills thousands thru radition poisoning throughout the region.

The question is comparing that to deaths caused by particulate emissions from coal burning.

Get your story straight or you look like a shill for the nuclear power industry..

Nuclear energy - Chernobyl and Three Mile Island
Owing to space constraints and to illustrate the flawed pedigree of the anti-nuclear hysteria that began in the sixties, my recent TCS article on nuclear power in Britain didn't mention Chernobyl. In part, I also wanted to keep this until the twentieth anniversary of the accident in April next year. Also, I had read in the press of a recent scientific consortium report(WHO press release is here, via Wikipedia) painting a less apocalpytic view of the consequences, but I hadn't followed the debate around this.


"As of mid-2005, however, fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster, almost all being highly exposed rescue workers, many who died within months of the accident but others who died as late as 2004."

The other obvious issues left out are Sellafield and the performance of the British nuclear industry, both of which need a great deal more research before I'd feel comfortable in commenting on them in any detail. I suspect that nuclear weapons manufacturing rather than the civilian energy programs may have been a greater source of waste and accidents.

Also, the financial health of the British nuclear industry - including British Nuclear Fuels Limited and British Energy - which owns the power stations - has been fragile, to put it politely.

For my part, I suspect that most of the hostility in Ireland to Sellafield is a combination of the environmentalist scare-mongering together with "green" politics of a more traditional sort, namely that if our wicked colonial overlords across the water are doing it, it must be immoral. After the Good Friday Agreement, this gives a rare opportunity for Brit-bashing while remaining politically respectable.

If you're really interested in the whole subject, the Westminster Energy Forum is running a conference on the regulation of the nuclear power industry in London on January 19th.

Nevertheless, the question remains to be answered: Given this safety-obsessed, nappies-within-nappies society that they've done so much to foster, why aren't Greenpeace being held to account for their publicity stunts, given that they're more dangerous than the nuclear power industry? Feel free to discuss among yourselves....

Chernyoble
More recent studies have put the Cherynoble death toll at closer to a few dozen.

It was also a design that was rejected by Western authorities as not safe enough. It was poorly built. It lacked a containment vessel. Is was being run through a dangerous experiment when the operators lost control of it.

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