Monday 16 September 2013

A nuclear compromise that makes me feel silly

I know.  I look so youthful.  You could hardly believe that I can remember the seventies.   Unfortunately, I can.  Winter of Discontent. Nuclear annihilation. Flared trousers, you know the kind of thing.

We used to talk then about the emergence of a new attitude in the UK: people who valued independence of mind and education, and put that above the need to impress their neighbours, people who believed in innovative local solutions, not big systems.

You might very well call them Liberal Democrats. I couldn’t possibly comment.

Years later, one of the gurus of this idea told me he had done a presentation at the Central Electricity Generating Board, the great bureaucratic monster which used to run energy in those days.  Think of the supreme soviet, think Gromyko, mixed with a bit of Kafka.

The senior executive took him aside afterwards and asked him how he could recognise people like that - the 'inner directed' - in their own organisation.

'Why?' asked the speaker. 'I assume you want to encourage them.'

'No,' said the man from the CEGB. 'We want to root them out.'

So there was the great divide as we saw it then. Between energy produced by huge, technocratic, inflexible centralised systems run by men in white coats, and energy produced locally, where everyone has a stake, by solar panels on every roof top, every lamp-post, every structure, man made or otherwise.  By every kind of renewable source, backed up for a time by the old sources.

And the only political force back in 1978 which recognised this idea, and which stood up against the disastrous nuclear reprocessing plant at Windscale/Sellafield, was the Liberal Party.  Alone they went into the voting lobbies against the plutonium reprocessing plant that year.  Of course I joined them; I joined them because they had a different vision of energy. 

They still do even now, despite yesterdays vote.  

But I'm more than a little sad that the party has abandoned its traditional, not to say heroic, opposition to nuclear energy - and I'm embarrassed too.  The Lib Dems have appeared to have voted for an impossible option - backing nuclear expansion only if it involves no state subsidies - when everyone knows there isn't a nuclear plant in the world that can stand on its own two feet.

I don’t deny that climate change needs urgent action. But we have tried the nuclear path before, and it is achingly slow.  By the end of the 1970s, nuclear was sucking up two thirds of the energy research budget. It will again.  Experience from the seventies is that, once you go down the nuclear route, the sheer expense sucks up the available investment.

It’s the cuckoo in the nest.  The triumph of hope over experience.  Despite all the talk of a diverse portfolio, it squeezes out everything else.

Which brings me to Boyle’s Law.

I don't mean the way that liquids expand when heated, or anything like that.  I mean this: Solar panels are bound to get cheaper and more efficient in the years ahead.

Every time manufacturing capacity doubles, the price of dollar energy drops by 20 per cent.  They’re now so productive in Australia and Spain that the big utilities are trying to suppress them.  The same old centralised CEGB thinking again. Actually, they hate diversity.

But here's the second part of Boyle's Law: nuclear is bound to get more expensive.

Because, of course the UK government is planning to subsidise via the price nuclear operators can sell at, and subsidising their responsibility for nuclear waste, for which there is still no long-term solution. And subsidising the insurance against devastating nuclear accidents. It isn’t economic otherwise.

Every time there’s a scare about terrorists getting hold of plutonium, and there are bound to be scares, the price will rise. Every time we worry about safety or security, the costs will increase. By going down this path, we will lock ourselves into those rising costs.

So I had hoped today we would shun the twentieth century technology, and go for a radical diverse local solution – not the rising costs of the men in white coats.

I might get over the disappointment, especially if we can define 'subsidy' properly, because it would rule out nuclear penjury.  After 34 years in the party, I'm not going anywhere.  But it is a bitter decision, for which I am going to have to suffer a great deal of ridicule in the green movement.

What makes it worse, I deserve to.  It is ridiculous wishful-thinking.  It is a bizarre compromise that makes no sense given the way the world is.  It might feel nice to have a policy promising nuclear energy that pays its way, just as it might be nice to have an education policy where there no failing schools.

It is the politics of magic wands and makes the party look silly.  Because nuclear energy doesn't pay its way anywhere and - according to Boyle's Law - it never will.

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