It is a newer, clearer tone that George Monbiot uses in his piece “The nuclear industry stinks. But that is not a reason to ditch nuclear power“. He seems to have lost his dirty annoyance with filthy anti-nuclear activists and moved onto a higher plane of moral certitude, where the air is cleaner and more refined.
He is pro-technology, but anti-industry. For him, the privately owned enterprises of atomic energy are the central problem that has led to accidents both of a radioactive and an accountancy nature. “Corporate power ?”, he asks, “No thanks.” The trouble is, you can’t really separate the failings of nuclear power from the failings of human power. It’s such a large, complex and dangerous enterprise that inevitably, human power systems compromise the use of the technology, regardless of whether they are publicly or privately owned. For a small amount of evidence, just look at the history of publicly-managed nuclear power in the United Kingdom. Not exactly peachy. And as for those who claimed that a “free” market approach to managing nuclear power would improve matters – how wrong they were. In my view, on the basis of the evidence so far, nobody can claim that nuclear power can be run as an efficient, safe, profit-making venture.
Added to that, even with moves towards privatisation and market liberalisation, though it’s assets were transfered to private ownership, and it’s liabilities left with the citizens, privately-owned nuclear power could never shake off the responsibilities it owed to the state, and it never will. As George says, it’s “far too close to government”. There is an automatic accountability built in to running such an invasive and risky electricity generation system. The UK Government recognises it can never fully devolve responsibility for nuclear power to private operators – it is preparing to take nuclear power companies into state administration if they fail financially – as part of the new Energy Bill and Electricity Market Reform policies.
So that means, that in addition to a raft of stealth and open taxpayer support for new nuclear power, there is, embedded and hinted at in these new regulations, the assurance that if the nuclear power industry continues to fail, it will be re-nationalised, and the private operators will not have to bear the financial losses. Nuclear power investment is being set up to become financially secure, even if it continues to be physically insecure. This deal will be worse than the generous arrangements made under the privatised construction industry – which built piles of energy-poor shoddy public buildings at ongoing extortionate cost.
The lack of transparency about this new nuclear deal, and the inevitable wrangling, is bound to lead to poor outcomes. As George says, “It is through such collusion that accidents happen.” So it’s rather strange that he calls for the guardrail that “new generation of nuclear power stations should be built only with unprecedented scrutiny and transparency”, when all the evidence points to the conclusion that it can never be done. You cannot have nuclear power without the spin, it seems, so George will not win change by “favouring the machines and opposing the machinations”.
We do have to work on the basis of evidence in technology. When I say “technology”, I don’t mean the science – they are entirely different things. Yes, nuclear power designs can be verified by the science of theoretical physics and improved by engineering expertise, but the factual evidence from over 50 years of nuclear power technology is that the industry, as George Monbiot puts it, “a bunch of arm-twisting, corner-cutting scumbags”, invariably misses the safety, productivity and engineering standards that one would hope would be expected from it based on scientific recommendations. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s privately or publicly managed. This suggests it’s not corporate mismanagement that’s always at fault, but rather the human management of the nuclear power technology itself. What we are trying to achieve with nuclear power may be too complex to be stable with humans in charge.
The learning process in nuclear technology has produced some gains, and George Monbiot is confident that, “Today’s technologies are safer still”. The central problem with this hopeful, optimistic, technodream argument is that it will still be Homer Simpson managing the day-to-day operations at nuclear power plants. The other central problem (since it’s a multi-piered core) is that the unexpected keeps happening in nuclear power. But so does the expected. Tritium gas build-up in pressurised water reactors was a known, calculated problem, but how is it that leaks are still occurring ? Have we not mastered this ? Will we ever be able to ?
I do not think we can ever be absolutely sure of nuclear power, regardless of developments. What the people in the management of the industry have said has not been backed up by facts on the ground, nor by the confidential whistleblowing reports of the engineers.
A large nuclear accident would be a catastrophe, but the chances of it occurring are slim, although Fukushima Daiichi proved they’re fatter than we were led to trust. However, the two most certain risks posed by nuclear power are its unreliability and its cost, neither of which have been improved after over half a century of development.
Nuclear has not provided, and Germany has decided it cannot provide. George Monbiot repeats the erroneous logic that because Germany has cancelled its nuclear programme, and is building more fossil fuel plants, that their carbon emissions will rise, “Angela Merkel announced a possible doubling of the capacity of the coal and gas plants Germany will build in the next 10 years”. What he neglects to factor in is that with the rapid rise of renewable energy in Germany, the new coal and gas plants will only be needed for the equivalent of a few weeks each year to back up wind and solar power in inclement weather conditions. He says “The renewable technologies which should have replaced fossil fuels will instead replace nuclear power.” In fact, what will happen is that Germany’s well-funded renewable energy technology deployment programme will replace both – when load balancing is improved and backup for renewable power becomes obselete.
George Monbiot makes a poor argument about energy demand reduction. “But even with a massive cut in overall demand, getting the carbon out of transport and heating means increasing electricity supply.” Getting the carbon out of transport requires either (a) massive production of biofuels or (b) rapid conversion of the entire vehicle fleet to electrical power, at massive cost to the public, coupled with a massive rapid increase in low carbon power generation. Can nuclear power provide ?
Personally, I don’t see low carbon biofuel production growing very much. And as for speed in growing renewable power supply, well, that’s pretty much scuppered by low ambition currently, and anti-wind farm sentiment. Nuclear power can never be built at speed, so it rules itself out of the strategy. No, getting carbon out of transport requires rationalisation of transportation – so more re-localisation of food production and service provision. And it also requires the refitting of vehicles currently in use to run on compressed biogas.
And as for George Monbiot’s argument that nuclear power is required to provide heating services, well, the “Centre for Alternative Technology’s radical and optimistic plan” that he cites doesn’t assume nuclear power for that task. The rule is “insulation, insulation, insulation”, and you won’t find nuclear power making up much more than a tiny slice of the CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain projection.
As for George recommending “fourth generation technologies” in nuclear power, I’d like him to point us to a single instance where these technologies have been tried, succeeded and are likely to be rolled out further. Generation Three technologies are not magnificent perfomers, so can we expect better of Generation Four ? Only the nuclear industry public relations firms are sure on that one.
And finally, George Monbiot gives the impression that besides Fukushima Daiichi, all the rest of the Japanese nuclear power plants are safe, tidy and wonderful when he writes, “The best evidence for the safety and resilience of nuclear power plants can be found at Fukushima. Not at Fukushima Dai-ichi, the power station where the meltdowns and explosions took place, but at Fukushima Dai-ni, the plant next door. You’ve never heard of it? There’s a good reason for that. It was run by the same slovenly company. It was hit by the same earthquake and the same tsunami. But it survived. Like every other nuclear plant struck by the wave, it went into automatic cold shutdown.” Massive earthquakes and tsunamis are rare, but ordinary everyday failings are sadly, rather common. In addition, two thirds of those reactors that failed on 11th March 2011, are still not operational again. The closer George Monbiot looks at the nuclear power industry, the more faults he will see.
“Nuclear Power – The Big Debate : George Monbiot : On Thursday 7th July, I’ll be thrashing out the issues with Greenpeace and others. Come along if you can…”