Nuclear power has become an increasingly hot topic over the last two years, with positions shifting all over the place. A number of dyed-in-the-wool Greens have recently become converts, including George Monbiot, Mark Lynas and Stewart Brand. Not surprisingly, longstanding critics of environmentalists The Breakthrough Institute have been in hot debate on the topic in the US. And of course events at Fukushima have prompted lots of furious exchanges, including this from Jeremy Leggett and this from John Vidal.
Political Climate dips its toe into these stormy waters with some trepidation (which may be surprising given that we have been accused recently of being smug!). So what I offer here is in the spirit of a thought experiment. Given that there is a lot of uncertainty around the future of the nuclear “renaissance”, there may still be a bit of time for this kind of reflection.
There are a lot of issues in the nuclear question – how low carbon is it, how much does it really cost, what do you do about the waste, how long will the uranium last, does that matter etc. I am not an expert on any of those things. My approach is based on two simple things that I think are true and are the most important aspects of nuclear.
The first is that it is pretty low carbon, no matter which way you cut it, and we do need low carbon. Nuclear isn’t zero-carbon, and it isn’t renewable, but I’ve seen the figures and I’m convinced.
The second is that you can’t trust the nuclear industry. Accusations of cover-ups on radiation leaks and accidents abound – TEPCO’s history before Fukushima being only the most recent example to hit the headlines. Parts of the industry have such bad management of waste that they have been described as “shambolic”. They aren’t transparent on costs. They have sought to undermine renewables.
So a question worth thinking about is: could you get the benefits of nuclear power without the drawbacks of the nuclear industry?
One obvious answer (to old social democrats at least!) might be to bring nuclear under government control. But that history isn’t particularly happy either. It was, after all, the chair of a government commission who told us that nuclear electricity would be “too cheap to meter”, and a government that covered up a fire at the Windscale reactor (now Sellafield) in 1957. It was also a government (albeit a really crap one) that produced Chernobyl.
So it comes down to a matter of trust – if you can’t trust nuclear to the private sector and you can’t trust it to the government, who can you trust it to?
One answer, and my modest proposal, might be to trust it to an independent public body, a Nuclear Foundation if you like, perhaps accountable to Parliament.
Both private sector companies and the government have incentives to lie about nuclear. Companies want to sell their technologies and gain subsidies for their electricity output. Governments don’t want to admit to investment mistakes, and fear the political backlash on the waste issue and on accidents. In both sets of institutions, nuclear has built up its own culture, attractive especially to engineers, who love the complex ‘kit’ and the impressive science. What we need is to get the decisions on investment, the management of accidents and the waste question out of the hands of these people and into the hands of a body that has no vested interests.
What kind of a body would this be? One which had independent technological and accounting expertise (or could draw on it). One which had on it representatives of electricity consumers, of the communities in which power stations are located and where waste might be buried, and of environmental groups (to give it credibility with the wider public). One of which anyone with the faintest whiff of an association with a conflict of interest would not be allowed within 500 miles.
Draconian laws would require any company considering building, building or operating a nuclear plant to give full and continuous information to this body, which would be able to shut it down if it took the view it should. Such a body would also lead a process by which society at large would decide how to get rid of the waste we’ve inherited, and any more generated in the future. CORWM was supposed to do that but it only had advisory powers.
At this point it’s worth reflecting on the economic consequences of this idea. Companies would hate it, but their financing banks would hate it even more, as it raises political risk. The cost of capital would be higher, and so would the price of the electricity resulting. Society as a whole would have to decide that it was a price worth paying for the better governance of ther technology.
A final thought. Why on earth would any government agree to this? Well, if a government was genuinely committed to doing something about emissions (suppose, for the sake of argument, that it said it was going to be the greenest government ever) then it would recognise that the public are not enthusiastic about nuclear power (probably even less so after Fukushima), that this is a lot to do with perceptions of nuclear waste and safety, that trust of the industry is very low, and that anything they could do to improve the governance of such an energy source would be a good idea.