Wednesday 1 May 2013

The sheer costs of nuclear malfunction

It is rather strange, but the present crisis at the doomed Japanese nuclear plant at Fukushima seems to have gone unreported in the UK press.

Groundwater is seeming into the stricken reactors at the rate of 75 gallons a minute, where it gets seriously contaminated and has to be stored in great vats on site.  It is pouring in at such a rate that the reactor operators are in the process of felling the next door forest to make more space for storing contaminated water.

When nuclear power plants go wrong, they really do go wrong.

Which gives me the opportunity of repeating what I once rather immodestly called Boyle's Law - that decentralised renewable energy is bound to get cheaper and nuclear energy is bound to get more expensive.

This does not require a Fukushima-style meltdown to happen in the UK, or anything like it.  Every time a new risk is diagnosed, or a new terrorist group appears to want to get hold of plutonium, the costs will rise - and potentially by billions, certainly millions.

That is why it is absolutely vital that the full costs of nuclear energy do not fall on taxpayers.  It is now exactly three years since the special Lib Dem conference in Birmingham to ratify the coalition, where Chris Huhne used the phrase: "Read my lips; no nuclear subsidies".

A lot has changed since then, and not just to Chris Huhne.  The government is desperate to sign a nuclear contract and, although they will be hidden in guaranteed prices, the subsidies will unfortunately be there - and the endless nuclear waste without a solution represents another unfunded cost.  So does the increasingly vital nuclear security costs.

But the most important basis for this reiteration of Boyle's Law is that breakdowns in complex, centralised energy systems are very expensive and very serious.  Breakdowns in simple, decentralised systems are irritating but easily put right.

These issues may turn out to be much more important politically than they seem, because I believe we are on the verge of a whole new wave of militant environmentalism, angry at plans for local fracking and furious at any local manifestation of the nuclear industry.  Not because of climate change or any green theoreticals, but simply because people will do almost anything if they think the health of their children is threatened.

And, despite my calm and rational exterior, I know whose side I am likely to be on.

No comments: