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.

Fracking exposes of a crisis at the heart of the Tory Party

The Tory party is in crisis. This is mainly a result of UKIP’s attack on their right flank, bolstered by the party leadership’s unpopular stance on EU membership. However there is also something deeper going on here. It must be hard for the party members to get excited about being a Tory. The glamour of opposition has gone and the party has been tarnished by being in power. Their term had been characterised by lack-lustre economic growth and compromise with the Lib Dems. Drumming up passion from the membership must be difficult, who are looking at the sexy UKIP for a little excitement.

The crisis in enthusiasm stems from the party's make up. Like the Labour Party its membership has steadily decreased over the last 30 years. The average Tory Party member is in their mid 60s and comes from a more relaxed section of society. They are well off, retired, comfortable and desire little, expecting their way of life to be protected. They see their traditional lives as threatened by modernity and are angry about this but they do not have a grand vision of how society should be remodelled. This is because they do not need one. Society had provided for them nicely, however, it is hard to energise a political force around protecting their way of life.

It was not always like this. In the late 1970s and early 1980s the Tory Party was known for dynamism and vision, they had Thatcherism, an idea that would change the whole nation. The Tory Party was seen as being on the side of business and innovation. Now they are seen as protecting vested interest and the young business person of today is not a Tory. If anything they are apolitical or libertarian. They want government out of the way completely. The final triumph of Thatcherism threatens to destroy the Tory party itself. The old members are inactive or dying off and young ones are not replacing them.

They need to do something to move the party’s image away from NIMBYs and social conservatives and towards the ethics of today’s young business people. After growing up under Blairism, these people are generally more socially liberal than the average Tory Party member but are also more in favour of the free-market. They see rural Tories’ opposition to high speed rail or wind farms as stifling the future of British business. The Tory Party needs to do something, and fracking appears to be their solution.

The government have thrown their weight behind fracking in a big way, claiming this is both the solution to our energy concerns and the economic stagnation that has gripped the country since they came to power. This idea has not been universally popular, and the government has inadvertently managed the difficult task of uniting wealthy, rural NIMBYs and green movement against them. Despite this, the government has claimed we could be the Saudi Arabia of fracking. From this I imagine Britain will become a country where a few extremely socially conservative rich people will possess unimaginable wealth and the rest of the population will be poor and live in a dry, lifeless wasteland – this is probably George Osborn’s vision of utopia. 

The process of fracking has the potential to cause irreparable damage to the natural environment and if anything is clear, the world does not need more sources of green house gases. However, the biggest problem is that we currently have a lively debate about alternative energy solutions that has the potential to do some real good. Countries like Germany are already moving towards producing their entire energy requirements from renewable resources. Fracking only delays the problem of what to do when the gas runs out at the possible  expense of this critical debate.

Still support for fracking solves some political problems for the Tories. Aside from the political problems it solves if fracking brings about an economic boom, it helps the party reclaim their mantel as the party of business. We have heard a lot of talk of how Britain can be a world leader again, in something over than CCTV cameras per square mile, while private companies make huge profits, driving growth and employment. This is the essence of what Conservatism used to be about.

Fracking also appeals to the elements of the Tory part that is frightened of modernity. This is big traditional heavy industry which voters like because they can understand what it does. This is not a social media start up with complex business plan that is difficult to understand and uses the word fermium a lot. This is also not a similarly complex financial industry, support for which is still tainted by popular dislike of bankers. This looks like government actually doing something. Even if doing something will create 30,000 gas towers across mainland Britain.

In fact the only people who seem to dislike this are the retired Conservative Party members whose garden view of a National Trust property is about to be spoiled by a pillar of smoke rising into the sky and whose house is about to experience increasing seismic activity.

This has exposed a division between Tories for whom Conservatism is about conserving, and the party’s Thatcherite members. It asks fundamental questions about what it means to be a Tory. One thing is certain, the Tory Party cannot go on mounting effective electoral campaigns with an increasingly ageing and inactive memberships. Something has to be done to bring new life into the party and attract young people. Also for the party to win an outright majority in a general election they need to become more dynamic and more appealing to young entrepreneurs.

Fracking may not be the solution to our energy problems, but it does help the Tories with their political problems. It focuses on business and aggravates the comfortable rural Tories whose vested interests the party is seen to protect. The government's support for fracking is not aimed at tackling the energy crisis or creating jobs, it is about marketing the Conservative Party to a new generation of business people.

We need to talk about gas

Gas is not a popular topic of conversation. When it comes to energy, most businesses or politicians prefer to talk about their plans to invest in green energy. This is usually steeped in the familiar rhetoric of reducing our carbon footprint or severing our dependency on the increasingly unstable Persian Gulf. We are familiar with the state of the public debate on energy and most people are tired of oxymorons about clean coal or the whining of NIMBYs about how unsightly wind farms are. However, I feel we need to talk more about gas.

Whether we like it or not we are a country addicted to gas. Most homes in this country use gas in their boilers and gas expenditure makes up a significant proportion of many peoples' household budget. We are so used to stumbling into the kitchen, bleary-eyed each morning, turning on the hob and pressing the ignition button to boil an egg that we scarcely give a second thought about where gas comes from and who’s hands we putting our hard earned wages into.

Like any other dwindling resource, the price of natural gas has risen exponentially as our demand has blossomed and deposits have been drained. The production and export of natural gas almost entirely props up the bank accounts of some of the world’s richest countries and people. Without the wealth stream generated by the West’s huge thirst for gas, nations like Qatar would simply be another Middle Eastern Emirate with an overbearing monarchy and alienated citizens.

The same is true in this country. The former state owned British Gas still controls a huge section of the British energy market and millions of people rely on the company to heat their homes in winter and provide their hot water. Each year British Gas and the other suppliers raise the cost to the consumer and then post record profits a few months later. This is partly due to rising costs from the firm’s suppliers but after a few years of price rises followed by increased profits one cannot help but draw conclusions.

Recently, British Gas announced that they will be raising their domestic gas prices by 18% in August and the other home suppliers are expected to follow with similar price hikes. This is alarming in the context of the BBC reporting that the division of British Gas which oversees domestic supply posted £740m in profit last year and, that for the same period, a 22% rise in fuel poverty was recorded.

Fuel poverty is when 10% or more of your budget is spent on heating your home. This means that a rise in gas prices whilst average income and other expenditure remains constant will cause the number of households who are fuel poor to rise. At Christmas this year over 4 million homes in the UK will be classed as fuel poor with obvious effects on personal health and comfort. If economics is the science of satisfying our material needs and wants then we are clearly failing to satisfy the need to keep warm of over 4 million families across the country.

Ballooning fuel prices also has a macro effect on our economy. Senior economists at the Bank of England have largely attributed the recent high levels of inflation (currently at 4.2% on the Consumer Price Index) to rising fuel costs. Energy prices push up the costs of production of our domestic industry which in turn is passed on the consumer in the form of higher retail prices. Transport costs and the cost of raw materials are linked to fuel prices and a clear pattern has emerged recently of rising inflation and rising price of oil and gas. Rising fuel prices also have a knock on effect on the cost of food. Food prices are highly sensitive to changes in transport costs and the Bank of England has stated that recent food prices rises are greater than to be expected. In the second quarter of 2011 inflation has fallen back from 4.5% to its current level on the CIP scale, although the Bank of England attributed this to falling high street prices and noted that fuel and food costs remained high for the same period.

It is mine and others' beliefs that the government and the energy regulator body Ofgem need to do more to curb the rise in gas prices. Run-away price rises are squeezing the budgets of too many households and pushing more families into poverty. Rising fuel costs are also pushing up inflation and stunting our economic recovery, this is partly due to foreign suppliers raising their price but a government subsidy could be used to prevent this rise being passed on to the consumer. Calling for government intervention in the domestic energy market will not be popular with the political centre, or with alarmists who will conjure up memories of the coal board, the 3 day week and poorly-run, tax absorbing state owned utility companies. That said, we cannot stand idly by and wait until having warmth in the winter becomes a luxury commodity while a former public owned industry continues to post record profits.

There are not many topics of conversation in politics that can be termed as sexy but gas surely is not one of them. Energy policy has focused on (the very important issue of) moving our dependency away from fossil fuels rather than how can we distribute the remaining non-renewable resources more fairly. In short we need to talk more about gas because, unpopular as it may be, it remains an important issue.