Having already announced his plans to build a new generation of nuclear power stations in November 2007, Gordon Brown has just completed a “consultation” on the issue and officially announced the “new” energy policy! A policy which, surprise, surprise, proposes up to twenty nuclear power stations, which will start coming on line around 2017.
The government plan is for the power stations to be financed through private enterprise but there will be plenty of public money to bail out the companies if they get into difficulty. While New Labour tries to make a business case for nuclear, they are finding it hard. In reality there is not a single nuclear power station in the world run by a private company.
In his announcement to the Commons, John Hutton, argued that public money had to be available to nuclear providers in order to create a “level fiscal playing field” with other energy providers in the fossil fuels and renewable sectors. Not for the first time, public money will top up the profit margins of private shareholders.
Why is the government so keen on nuclear? According to Hutton, nuclear power is the key to staving off climate change: “The entire lifecycle emissions of nuclear — that’s from uranium mining through to waste management — are only between 2% and 6% of those from gas for every unit of electricity generated,” he says. Apparently we also need “energy security” to reduce our dependence on Islamist or Russian regimes. And we also need to plug the “energy gap” that is likely to occur with the decommissioning of several power stations.
Leaving the specific problems of nuclear aside (see Solidarity 3/119) these arguments do not really add up. While the “energy gap”, “energy security” and “climate change” are like noble causes, the planned proposals do little or nothing to solve them.
Even the most optimistic of guesses have the first of the new nuclear power plants coming online in 2017. The only comparable example this decade, Finland's Olkiluoto 3 reactor, is already two years behind schedule. By the time we get a lightbulb’s worth of electricity out of these reactors we would be in the middle of the energy gap and all things being equal more dependent on all sorts of fascistic regimes, with fossil fuel prices escalating.
By 2017 there should already have been massive cuts in our carbon emissions if the planet is to avoid irreversible climate change.
That has to mean a massive investment in renewables, energy storage and carbon capture technology. For this technology to be effective we would need a giant international supergrid spreading throughout Europe and North Africa, to offset fluctuations that occur with weather changes and which would cause a smaller grid to collapse.
The current nuclear policy runs very much against the internationalist logic. If everyone followed Britain’s lead and went nuclear, global uranium deposits would run out in less than 10 years. Sadly, the climate change issue is being used to shore up narrow nationalistic sentiments at the expense of an international solution.
The nationalism inherent in the nuclear policy is further revealed when we focus on the maniacal element of Brown’s nuclear programme — the £70 billion Trident replacement project. Remind ourselves of the family connections involved — Brown’s brother is a major lobbyist for the French nuclear company, EDF — and we see public policy guided by self-interest, short-sidedness and nepotism.
Unfortunately the leaders of Britain’s largest trade union, Unite, has welcomed the energy plan in a statement echoing Brown’s “British jobs for British workers” TUC speech.
Now more than ever we need a rank-and-file movement to wrest control of the unions and the labour movement away from the short-sighted demagogues playing dangerous political games with the future of the planet.