Thu, Jul 20, 2006 - Page 9 News List

For the right, nuclear power is the answer

By Polly Toynbee  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Murderous mayhem in the Middle East sends oil prices through the roof -- US$78 a barrel and climbing. UK electricity prices are up 35 percent in two years, gas prices up 53 percent. So the British government launched its energy review last week in a turbulent market. With no certainty on price, all estimates of the costs of various energy technologies are equally rough guesses.

So political predilection guides this whole debate: the pro-business right is instinctively pro-nuclear, the left is anti.

Without verifiable forecasts, one expert's guess vies with another's. That allows political passions on all sides to masquerade as pure science or economics.

The old right has been on an arduous journey, with most finally converted to the truth universally acknowledged, except by flat-earthers: the world is warming at life-on-earth threatening speed.

When the climate-deniers' case collapsed, they retreated to an ideological redoubt claiming global warming was a natural phenomenon, not amenable to man-made remedy. But that fortress crumbled too, and even US President George W. Bush, last of the naysayers, conceded.

For some reason the old naysayers, barely batting an eyelid, shifted over to nuclear as the only salvation, though those who have been so wrong owe a little humility when it comes to next steps. Many hail from a bizarre tradition of right-wing bad science, such as Andrew Neill, the London Sunday Times editor who ran a dangerous campaign that denied HIV caused AIDS, branding the latter as a disease only of gays and the wildly promiscuous.

Consider the continuing claim of the London Daily Mail and the British journalist Melanie Phillips that the MMR vaccine causes autism, panicking mothers into failing to immunize babies. Posing as hard-headed realists, those on the right are more prone to pit their ideology against the weight of science.

Seat belts? Motorbike helmets? Chlorofluorocarbons and the ozone layer? Smoking bans? Advertising junk food to children? The science-based realists tend to be on the left, the conviction-based fundamentalists on the right.

Climate change leaves no doubt that nuclear power is infinitely better than roasting to death. New stations are likely to be safer and better built, but will still produce a lot of radioactive waste, if less than before. The energy review still has no idea what to do with it. Even so, nuclear is better than baking.

But why are nuclear enthusiasts so sure there is no better alternative? A ring of off-shore wind turbines round these blustery islands would give permanent energy. British Prime Minister Tony Blair chose a picturesque boat ride to one to launch his review. It's expensive -- but compared with what? So far the cost of nuclear energy, clean coal and all other untested options is guesswork.

Here's the conundrum: the people now supporting nuclear are the same ones appalled by vast state-sponsored schemes in the making: look at ID cards, gigantic IT pipe dreams, the Concorde or other balloons swelling up from politicians' airy rhetoric. The history of nuclear power is the most grotesque example of a state program founded on dreams mushrooming out of control because no one dared say "Stop!" In the 1950s, people were promised energy so cheap there would be no bills, so no party dared stop pouring good money after bad. Construction was always wildly over cost and late, delivering far less energy than promised. So why are they falling for the same snake oil again?

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