I’ve been viewing the escalating disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant and, along with sympathy for those in the area and horror at the scale of the problems, wondering how it will affect UK energy policy. George Monbiot, among others, has thrown his hat in the ring in support of the previously planned nuclear plant replacements, the decision now delayed for 3 months until the implications of the Japanese meltdown have been assessed.
Even ignoring the possibility of Fukushima-like events, I’m inclined to think that the probably-underestimated costs of future decommissioning of plants and the storage of waste will make nuclear power financially unviable, and that the danger of the waste hanging around until the year dot makes commissioning new plant morally unacceptable. When we consider the possibility of disaster, though the probability of devastating floods, earthquakes and the like are of course much less here than elsewhere, I can’t help thinking that a broken wind turbine just stops without contaminating the surrounding area for years to come.
Mr Monbiot, after implacably opposing nuclear power, has flipped (or flopped if you prefer) into the opposite camp. He suggests that not replacing current nuclear generating capacity will result in increased fossil-fuel generation, and that the climate-change argument takes precedence over worries of pollution of a different, less immediate variety. It’s a particular rebuttal to Green anti-nuclear arguments, but even if you disagree that climate change is more dangerous than fuel rods encased in concrete glowing under the ground, the argument addresses the fact that you need to generate electricity somehow unless you wish to return to the Iron Age. However, the assumption that coal will be needed, underpinning most of the points, ignores projections like those that Germany can switch to 100% renewable power by 2050. He complains that the feed-in tariff for rooftop PV electricity is many times more expensive than the largest estimate for per-unit cost of nuclear power generation. However, that isn’t a true cost but an incentive for investors to provide capital outlay to boost uptake of this kind of renewable energy generation for political reasons.
Mr Monbiot has come in for criticism for his stance, that Greens who are also anti-nuclear have double standards. But my own position is also a difficult one to justify. I was once a worker in the nuclear industry. I was employed for some years during the construction phase of Sizewell B as an electrical commissioning engineer. I accepted the pay and dismissed the kind of arguments I’ve outlined already. Does it make me a hypocrite to change my mind 15 years on, when I contributed to the very thing I now disapprove of? Or, like Mr Monbiot, can I justifiably switch opinions without worrying about my previous position? Anyone is allowed to change their mind. When an opinion becomes unchangeable doesn’t it also become stale, uninteresting and ultimately invalid through the refusal to consider or even acknowledge competing arguments? Like it or not, an opposing view is necessary to test your own, and the very action of testing it means that even a previously strongly-held view is always liable to change.
Some assert that low-level radiation of the kind due to a nuclear power station, whether functioning correctly or stricken like those at Fukushima, is of negligible danger to human health. Even 25 years after the Chernobyl explosion, there is little proof linking subsequent ill-health and deaths in the vicinity to that event, (apart from entirely avoidable scenarios) never mind to a normally operational station. They have never stood in a radiation suit on the dirty side of a row of detector cubicles, alarms blaring and refusing to allow you through to the outside world because you are contaminated. I have, and I don’t mind admitting it gave me the willies. They hadn’t even turned the place on yet, and it turned out to be the paint on my watch causing the alarm, not the radioactive sources I carried in my bag. Just the sort of panic reaction that typifies those who oppose the use of nuclear power in its current form? Or understandable fear of a technology whose effects we don’t fully understand?