I have been reading with interest George Monbiot’s change of heart on nuclear power. I have followed a fairly similar path myself, though am less willing to commit myself to full support of the industry than George is. I would now describe myself as a sceptical agnostic, which is considerably closer to acceptance than I was a few years ago when I was vehemently against.
My concerns about the safety, efficiency and byproducts of the nuclear industry and the its culture remain. But they are increasingly offset by my concerns about the safety, efficiency and byproducts of the coal industry, and sadly in the UK at least, we do seem to have set this up as a zero sum game. If we have to have one or the other, I’ll take nuclear.
But here’s the thing. Everyone, from every party – and I include former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Miliband – is completely disingenuous when they talk about the funding of nuclear power. Everybody claims they can guarantee that there will be no state funding of nuclear power. They simply cannot guarantee this.
The logic behind this statement is clear and demonstrable by very recent history. When an industry that is essential to the running of our country fails, the public sector has to step in. I understand why the banks were “too big to fail” and the absolute necessity of supporting them through public subsidy.
The nuclear industry is practically the dictionary definition of “too big to fail”. Currently nuclear energy provides about a 5th of our energy consumption in the UK and this is likely to increase. We cannot go without this energy without massive shocks to our economy and to our daily lives – just as with the banking crisis. And just as with the banking crisis, the Government of the day would not let that happen. So if the private sector withdraws from nuclear power, the public sector would have to step in. Given we are talking about an industry that creates thousand year problems to be dealt with, I think the odds are probably pretty good that this will happen at some point in the lifespan of nuclear energy in the UK.
So if we are going to have nuclear energy, I think we need to be honest up front about the role the state has to play as a back stop to the industry. If we don’t we will find ourselves negotiating in a crisis as we did with the banks, which helps no one but the few who grow rich by gambling wildly with the future of others.