Tue, May 20, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Hysteria over nuclear and shale gas obscures rational debate about energy

Gas and nuclear are the cleanest and least dangerous sources of energy available, yet suffer from lack of political lobbying and public support

By Simon Jenkins  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Yusha

If 300 workers were to die in a nuclear accident or a shale gas blast, such an energy source would be doomed. Not so coal. Coal is the filthiest and most polluting form of energy and the most dangerous to extract. I recall my Welsh grandfather boasting that none of his sons had “gone down the pit.” Yet coal continues to exert a mesmeric hold on the world’s imagination, especially on the left.

Labour supported miners’ union leader Arthur Scargill’s determination to keep pits open. The party prevented former British prime minister Tony Blair from building any nuclear power stations, instead tipping subsidies into wind, which merely encouraged Britain’s dependency on coal, now at 38 percent and rising.

Global coal consumption is at its highest level since 2006 and mocks all attempts at emissions discipline.

The past two decades of a “rush to renewables” remains a conundrum of modern government. Wind clearly generates electricity, which is good, but not much — and at a cost that has led to an extraordinary shift in wealth from poor to rich in public finance.

In most of Europe, wind power has driven up fuel poverty and made dozens of landowners multimillionaires.

A KPMG report to government in 2011 suggested that a similar cut in emissions could be achieved by switching to gas and nuclear, at a reported saving of £34 billion (US$57.2 billion).

The prospect of a bandwagon loaded with subsidy (wind) crashing head-on into another loaded with profit (oil) has not been conducive to calm debate. All the two sides can agree on is paranoia about nuclear.

After Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster in 2011, in which no one died, Germany was so panicked that it closed all its nuclear sites.

This in turn meant frantic investment in German coal and lignite — 10 new plants are said to be opening — and a surge in Polish coal output.

Germany may spend 20 billion euros (US$27.4 billion) a year on renewables subsidies, involving an 80 percent rise in real energy prices since 2000, but the need to back these up with conventional capacity means that the chief beneficiary of Fukushima was coal.

Germany’s carbon emissions are rising by between 5 percent and 7 percent a year.

Meanwhile, the continued identification of nuclear power with nuclear weapons — and now with the prospect of a terrorist dirty bomb — has long underpinned the left’s opposition to it.

Anyone involved should take an icepack and sit down to read Wade Allison’s Radiation and Reason as an antidote. There have been few such potent alliances as the anti-nuclear lobby, Big Carbon and the Saudis driving up the cost of nuclear. The beneficiary, again, has been coal.

Anyone who dares talk or write on this subject is scrutinized for tribal loyalties. Where is he coming from? Who must be paying him? I must have spent hundreds of man-hours attempting to keep abreast of the debate, struggling to remain loyal to planet reason.

All I have concluded is that most sensible people — though not all — think the climate is changing and that the precautionary principle suggests concerted action to combat it.

However, the “renewables ascendancy,” culminating in the hysteria of the first International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, was a disaster.

It saw any carbon combustion or nuclear reaction as equally evil, and any sun, wind or wave power as equally good — however costly.

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