Split Over the Atom

by | Aug 10, 2008

George Monbiot’s recent conversion to atomic energy, on the basis that ‘I have now reached the point at which I no longer care whether or not the answer is nuclear. Let it happen’, continues to generate fallout.

The latest is that Arthur Scargill, the man who led the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in the 1980s against the Thatcher Government, has emerged from obscurity to argue the case for clean coal as the ‘solution’ to climate problems, and that atomic energy is dirty and dangerous

Has [Monbiot] not read the evidence presented by environmentalists such as Tony Benn and me at the Windscale, Sizewell and Hinckley Point public inquiries? Is he unaware that nuclear-power generated electricity is the most expensive form of energy – 400% more expensive than coal – or that it received £6bn in subsidies, with £70bn to be paid by taxpayers in decommissioning costs? Is he unaware that there is no known way of disposing of nuclear waste, which will contaminate the planet for thousands of years? Has he forgotten the nuclear disasters at Windscale, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl?

Particularly interesting are the figures from the old Left who are the voices in this discussion. What is even more interesting is that they are framing their arguments around the issue of safety and risk.

I challenge George Monbiot to test out which is the most dangerous fuel – coal or nuclear power. I am prepared to go into a room full of CO2 for two minutes, if he is prepared to go into a room full of radiation for two minutes.

This is great idea. We wish them both good luck, and eagerly await the results of the experiment.

Atomic energy is a symbol of the Left’s decline during the eighties, as Thatcher undermined (if you’ll pardon the pun) its influence in a historical battle with the NUM, after which, the Left was never the same, if it was at all. Even more interesting is that Thatcher is alleged to have espoused environmental issues in order to create a basis for more atomic power stations, reducing the UK’s dependence on coal, and thus coal workers and their unions. Others claim that it was a ruse to develop Britain’s atomic weapons program. Whatever, the history of science being used to arm political arguments goes back a long way. Scargill has a score to settle. Lacking now the courage of his socialist convictions, he uses Thatcher’s argument. The man who, according to the slogans of the era, ‘walks on water’, now breathes pure CO2. A miracle, only matched by his resurrection from political death.

Tony Benn, socialist, animal rights activist, environmentalist, aristocrat (are you spotting a pattern yet) ought to know about the problems of the UK’s atomic energy network:

Then in 1955 President Eisenhower launched the ‘Atoms for Peace’ programme and many people, including me, saw this as a classic example of ‘beating swords into ploughshares’ and strongly supported civil nuclear power in Britain, a view I still held when, in 1966 I was appointed Minister of Technology with responsibility for the development of that programme.

Now, along with Scargill, Benn is against atomic energy.

I was told, believed and argued publicly that civil nuclear power was cheap, safe and peaceful and it was only later that I learned that this was all untrue since, if the full cost of development and the cost of storing long-term nuclear waste is included in the calculations nuclear power is three times the cost of coal when the pits were being closed on economic grounds. Nuclear power is certainly not safe as we know from accidents at Windscale (now renamed Sellafield), from Three Mile Island in America and Chernobyl in the Ukraine, dangers which the authorities have always been determined to downplay.

If Benn wants to know why atomic energy in the UK was expensive and messy, he might consult his own diaries. In France, they went with it, and now produces 80% of its own supply that way. When the UK’s infrastructure falls short, we buy electricity from France. In fact, France is the world’s top exporter of electricity, worth E3 billion a year. France is in this position because it invested in the development of the technology, which now produces cheap electricity. Britain’s atomic energy program, under the direction of, amongst others, Benn, was far less well organised, changing direction, and technologies, and failing to develop standards.

So should the UK go with atomic, or coal? (Leaving aside ‘renewables’).

To get the right answers, and to have a productive discussion, we need the right questions. Benn’s and Scargill’s arguments about safety are bogus. Mining is certainly no safer for miners than an atomic energy plant is for its workers. Miners are routinely exposed to radon, amongst many other risks. But as technology has developed, the risks to all sorts of workers – and the public – has diminished dramatically. So too has our vulnerability to the climate. The use of safety to arm the arguments about future energy supply – across the political spectrum – masks failing political perspectives. There is nothing ‘safe’ about energy. If there were, it would probably not be useful. And on the other hand, not having any energy is itself even more a risky business.

We have nothing against ‘renewables’ in and of themselves. On the contrary, newer, cleaner, more efficient forms of power generation might offer exciting opportunities. We do, however, object to the way that ‘renewable’ is a pretext for less energy. As we have said before, should renewables promise to provide us with more energy than we know what to do with, the environmental lobby would no doubt find good reasons to object to those, too.

Given that debates about coal, nuclear and renewables are never framed in terms of how best to generate more energy, they become no more meaningful than petty squabbles about health and safety, in which opposing sides only seek to influence the debate in order to score symbolic victories… Pissing contests.

Once the silly questions about safety are out of the way, and political capital is made out of something positive rather than by scare stories, we can focus once again on what we need energy for: for creating better lives, for enjoying our existences, for making things, and all of that stuff that has been forgotten in the paralysing nonsense that dominates the ‘debate’. Who really cares whether it is coal, atomic, or even renewables? The point is simply that the terms of today’s debate are stale, pointless, and depressing.


  1. jabailo

    I don’t see why there’s any argument at all.

    France produces 80% of its electricity with nuclear.

    It sells the surplus.

    Are the French dying of radiation poisoning?

    Are Frances costs too high to maintain the program?

    Is there something in the wine that makes France the only country in the world that is capable of doing this?

    Do they wish they had never gone nuke and hate it? Or do they love it and are glad they did?

    With France around, there is no need for “projections” and studies. Just check the accounting for France and see if it works.

  2. The Sun says No...

    Funnily enough It was James “Your Doooomed” Lovelock himself made me do a total re-think over nuclear after reading Gaias Revenge (Grrr!) – alas for him I went on to further scrutinise his ideas in such a way too…

    Ah but would I want a nuclear power station near me? We’ll I doubt anyone particularly wants a power station on the door step but that aside (& carbon capture & the like aside) I’d rather risk homeopathic carcinogens over breathing in what the other options might currently be producing

    Perhaps the greens should rethink solar power since it utilises the nuclear furnice of the sun by proxy

  3. Dave Gardner

    As I understand it, the key worst decision in the history of British nuclear power was to press ahead with the Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor (AGR) in the 1960s and it was Tony Benn that made that decision. To make the decision even worse, the three UK nuclear design firms in existence in the 1960s were asked to come up with a different AGR design each. So for Benn to argue that nuclear power has been expensive and unsuccessful is a bit like whoever it was that was responsible for the development of the Betamax video arguing that the the videocassette manufacturing industry has been expensive and unsuccessful.

    Arthur Scargill sounds like he is stuck in a 1980s timewarp. He doesn’t seem to have worked out that the British Green movement has stabbed him and the coal mining industry in the back.

    In the 1980s Greenpeace argued for a coal-fired power station to be built instead of Sizewell B even though the ‘greenhouse effect’ was known about at the time. Jonathon Porritt’s thoughts on the greenhouse effect in the 1980s were (from his book ‘Seeing Green’): “When fossil fuels are burned, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. There’s no technological fix that can do anything about this…. CO2 concentrations will have doubled by the middle of the next century. This may well trigger off the ‘greenhouse effect..” (page 41) “In the meantime, our reserves of coal should see us through for the next 250 years or so”. (page 176)

    When the Conservatives got rid of Britain’s coal mining industry in the 1990s, partly under the excuse of global warming, it became expedient for British Greens to be opposed to burning coal (unlike Germany where their Greens are not as yet opposed to coal because Germany still has a big coal-mining insustry) and they have been ever since.

  4. The Badge

    I notice George Monbiot is accepting Arthur Scargill’s challenge as long as he can choose the source of radiation in the room. Presumably he’s just going to pull the curtains, or simply say “background” and stand there for two minutes. Looking forward to seeing how long Arthur can hold his breath….. :D

  5. J. Ewing

    THIS IS SILLY. It is a matter of established scientific fact that there is more radiation coming out of a coal-fired power plant than is emitted from a nuclear plant.


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