Thursday, January 10, 2008

England Heading Back to the Future

The long-anticipated announcement from the British government endorsing new nuclear construction has finally been made public. This is, of course, very good news for Britain, as the closure of existing nuclear plants there over the next two decades would probably have posed insurmountable challenges for British electrical infrastructure. It is also a critical step in the ongoing nuclear renaissance, and a massive defeat for the anti-nuclear power movement worldwide. Indeed, events unfolding in Britain have simultaneously disproved a number of longstanding canards that continue to be repeated by nuclear power opponents, and I believe it wise for advocates of the technology to familiarize themselves with events in Britain as ammunition for debate.

The Labour government has followed a long and twisted path to reach its current position of nuclear power. I must admit that I find an enormous amount to dislike in "New Labour," as it was dubbed years ago, but this is one area where I think they've gotten it right. What cannot be emphasized enough is that Labour would never have come to endorse this position without regarding it as an urgent necessity, as nuclear power is an enormous political liability in Britain. Indeed, the evolution of Labour's Energy White Papers over the last few years is indicative of this. In 2003, Labour seriously proposed the kind of gargantuan renewable energy scheme favored by so many environmentalists. Thousands and thousands of windmills would dot the British countryside and coast, shuttling power from one part of the country to another via a high-tech "supergrid." This was, of course, pleasing to the environmentalist lobby; but when figures both within and without the UK government studied the physical implications of the scheme, they were dismayed to discover that it simply wouldn't work. Indeed, it is from the research inspired by this quandary that we have the best-balanced and authoritative analyses of renewable energy (that I've seen, anyhow): the success of renewable energy is a political necessity in Britain, and the British were forced to grapple with the real-world impossibility of this. And today we saw the fruits of their discoveries: the final admission that Helen Caldicott is wrong and that nuclear power is the answer.

What is perhaps even more instructive than the British political reversal on nuclear power is the fact that both Labour and the Tories insist that nuclear power is to receive no subsidies, but that private industry is actually stepping up to provide the capital. This is because the British government is in fact subsidizing new nuclear plants, albeit not in the usual sense of the term. British policy guarantees that no new fossil fuel plants will be built there anytime soon, as carbon capture and storage are not yet economical (and if current trends hold, may never be). At the same time, the impending closure of the existing nuclear plants, along with existing fossil fuel plants under Britain's ambitious plans to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, guarantee ample demand for electrical generation in even the near future. Although the government is still planning to construct innumerable windmills, these do not really pose and serious threats to nuclear generation. Indeed, electricity prices in the UK are probably going to increase dramatically in the next few decades, even with the new nuclear plants. So at least in Britain, nuclear power is a pretty sure bet. The investors may not make back their money for 10-15 years, but after that they are likely to roll in a near-inconceivable amount of lucre for their troubles. If anyone tries to tell you that nuclear power is uneconomical, you might be wise to inform them of Britain's example. Hopefully it'll finally get Amory Lovins to stop repeating his ridiculous line about "no private risk capital in nuclear power," but somehow I doubt that'll happen.

But in any case, today was a landmark for nuclear power. Although I won't consider the anti-nukes truly defeated until the German government makes the same reversal (and however improbable that seems now, in a few decades they'll probably have no choice), the world is truly going our way.


Charles Barton said...

We are talking about a movement that is left over from the 1970's. A generation has passed. Lovins, Caldicott, and Nader are voices from the past. They recite the same words over and over, but their formulas no longer have meaning. Events of 20 or 30 years ago fade from memory. What people remember now is that reactors supply electric power year after year. People are no loner afraid of nuclear power, and calls for more fear are falling on deaf ears.

Sovietologist said...

I certainly hope you're right. Honestly, I think that what fear they're able to sow today is going to be more than canceled out when the world simply comes to terms with the fact that nuclear power is the best, and probably only, answer we have for the problems currently facing us. I think that the peer-reviewed science is pretty unequivocal on this point now, but remaining doubts should be assuaged by the experience of China, the UK, and other countries embarking on new nuclear builds. The outcome, I believe, is assured; the only question is how successful the remaining anti-nuclear obstructionists will be. If recent events are any indication, they're rapidly losing traction.