The nuclear option: no one wants Fukushima in their back yard

Energy policy, like many other political issues, divides the left. Some left-wingers are pro-nuclear energy and point to countries like France which produces three quarters of its energy from nuclear power. It is a convincing argument as France has one of lowest greenhouse gas emissions in Europe and the lowest energy prices. Opponents to nuclear energy point out that uranium is still a finite resource, like coal. They also point towards nuclear power’s history of catastrophes from Chernobyl to Three Mile Island.

Most political parties agree that there are problems with the energy policy of the past. Coal, oil and gas are rising in price about as fast as our collective understanding of the damage they do to the environment. Oil and gas also increase our reliance on countries we would rather not be dependent upon. When choosing supplies, we have the politically unstable and violent Middle East or the stable and violent Russian Federation. Politicians of every banner can see the value in disengaging from both of these oil and gas rich regions.

We all agree there is a problem, but disagree on the solution. The current Tory government is enamoured with fracking, which is hardly a solution at all as it is still non-renewable energy, environmentally damaging and likely to produce earthquakes – although these are physical earthquakes unlike the political ones going on in the Middle East. The main reason for the Tories support of fracking is so that David Cameron can be pictured in a hard hat in front of a giant machine and appearing to be accomplishing something tangible for once. It also a cynical attempt to recapture the idea that the Tories are the party of the entrepreneur, an opinion which a decade of New Labour followed by a Tory government made up of, and run for, the benefit of the landed gentry has eroded. Personally, I do not see how fracking would help with this. Giant energy companies have little to do with aspirational working class people who want to improve their social and economic standing through setting up a business.

What giant energy companies certainly are not is socialist. They are the antithesis of everything Marxists of today and yesterday believe in. The Tory commitment to them is a continuation of the policy of doing nothing and hoping that the free market can sort this problem out. While the Tory government is waiting for Ayn Rand to solve problems of energy policy, the water levels are rising in poor countries. But we cannot seriously expect Tories to worry about that.

Meanwhile the left is failing to provide any seriously leadership on this issue due to the above mentioned divisions. The Green movement, which is against nuclear power and prefers a 100% renewable approach, point to countries like Germany which are migrating away from nuclear in favour of renewable energy. They also point to recent news that wind generated more electricity than nuclear power on the 21st of October (however the circumstances of this were dubious if you read into it in more detail)

As noble as this goal of renewable energy is, most people agree that this is a long term goal and something else would be needed to fill the gap while technology catches up to our ambitions. The same can be said of nuclear fusion power, or deep vent geothermal power, which have been perpetually ten years away since the 1970s.

The Greens are currently experiencing their own internal division between the ‘dark green’, ‘light green’ and ‘bright green’ environmentalists. The first of these has more in common with the socialists the Labour party are doing their best to ignore in that they believe that climate change is a consequence of our capitalist system and materialist culture. The light greens are apolitical or anti-political, and believe that changing our behaviour is the solution. Their plan is that we can save the world one community recycling centre at a time. Finally the bright green environmentalists rely on technological change to stop the rising tides; it this ideology which sits most comfortably with capitalism and was endorsed by a younger, more optimistic David Cameron before he was fully claimed by regressive little England Toryism.

Like the rest of the left I am divided on this issue myself. As much as I might agree with the dark green environmentalists that capitalism is the problem, I have no desire to live in a yurt in the New Forest. My socialism has as much to do with the liberating power of technology as it does with putting oil executives in the stocks. Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” will have a role to play in the saving of humanity, even if it is partly responsible for this mess in the first place. As for light green environmentalism, I am suspicious of anyone who believes that the problems of the world can be solved by a very insistent leafleting campaign and a few more allotments. The bright green environmentalists do offer the attractive prospect of believing the problem is completely out of my hands, but between my emotional mistrust of capitalism and the fact that most of the technology the bright greens rely on is still a few years away means I cannot endorse this ideology.

It is hard to know what you believe when no view occupies the moral high ground or is overwhelmingly popular. This is one of those tricky situations where it is necessary to have an opinion and back it up with evidence.

The current vogue for localism has some baring on this debate. The light greens may believe that the best way to tackle environmental issues is at the local level, this is not the case for power generation. This is one policy area that needs to be dealt with by central government - just like the creation of the national grid itself back in the 1920s. Any energy solution should be planned for long term benefit, which means we need a central government solution to this problem.

It may not be inspirational or transformative, but I find myself coming back to the advantages of nuclear power and France’s low carbon footprint and cheap energy. It is one of those unusual solutions which would benefit the poor and private businesses. Investment in nuclear will also create jobs, well-paying secure jobs, something which there is a definite shortage of. Wind and tide certainly have its place in this mix, so will our existing coal, gas and oil infrastructure as it is phased out. This would move us away from fossil fuels and our reliance on the Middle East and Russia.

However it does leave the tricky issues of where do we build these nuclear power stations. No one wants Fukushima going on in their back yard. No one wants a fracking induced earthquake in their backyard either, which will happen if we do not adopt what I am hesitant to call “the nuclear option”. This problem goes beyond keeping the lights on now - demand for electricity will increase if we are to wean ourselves off fossil fuels. If electric cars take off then we will need to rapidly increase our electricity production capacity as well.

The left need to get behind government backed nuclear power. The Tory’s free market solution may not solve the problem in time. If I was trapped in a room with rising water, I would find little comfort in the fact that I had created a powerful economic incentive to be saved. The Green movement has the right intentions but their sweeping changes to human nature or technological revolution may not arrive in time. For now, nuclear is our best choice for a divided left, hopefully this is something we can agree on.