Ditch the Nuclear Illusion

March 30, 2012

Democracy, justice and the nuclear industry, do not seem to sit well together at all.

This week, both E.On and RWE decided to pull out of deals to build two new reactors, citing concerns about their viability following the decision of Germany’s government to halt all new reactor construction in response to the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

With their retreat threatens to go £15 billion in investment, largely in quite deprived areas such as North Wales, along with 6 GW of new electricity capacity. This is a “train wreck” scenario for the region (in purely economic terms), but the government has not offered to find a solution outside of conventional market constraints.

Instead, the coalition government is happy for Britain’s energy supplies to be taken hostage by multinational corporations. As soon as the RWE and E.On withdrawal became known, French giant EDF, which is also building new reactors in the UK, began to agitate for greater subsidies. New nuclear projects are already garlanded with juicy price guarantees, so that profits are locked into such deals. Now, as an EDF spokesperson puts it the firm’s commitment to the Hinckley Point project “depends on having a profitable project which meets the financial targets.”

There is no hint of market discipline here. Risk averse corporations have found a homely niche in the nuclear industry, where subsidies flow freely and firms have the ear of craven governments.

There is an urgent need for a rethink of Britain’s nuclear policy, which at the moment seems to be acting as a giant siphon, channeling public money to the continent. As environmentalist Charles Secrett says, “How on Earth can the prime minister justify paying billions of pounds of subsidy to French power companies when the chancellor is slashing welfare budgets for poor people in Britain and there are a million young people unemployed?”

Or, as Prof Dame Sue Ion of the Royal Academy of Engineering puts it, “This decision will bring home to the government how challenging it is when investment decisions are left entirely to the market. We are now in a position where investment by UK utilities in the UK is being affected by decisions taken overseas.”

But this is hardly likely. After all, it was revealed last year just how close the government has become to the nuclear giants. As well as working hand in glove with the firms to play down the Fukushima crisis, the government also passed confidential legal documents relating to the environmental group Greenpeace, helping EDF in particular to fight cases against direct action protesters. And EDF has also seconded many staff to the civil service free of charge, extending their influence and making it harder to imagine a climb-down from the current situation.

The reality is that nuclear power is too risky for corporate capital to commit to, and that any “market” solution will require huge inducements to operate effectively, if at all. On the one hand, we have decisions about Britain’s energy future being made in boardrooms in Germany. On the other, we have a French giant working in tandem with the state to suppress dissent, seeking to take over the policy making process – at the same time as it demands higher subsidies.

In the interests of democracy, energy policy should back technologies that can be funded without putting corporations in the position to blackmail the state. Sourcing renewable energy from the many hundreds of small and medium sized firms working in the field, might be one option. Developing tidal power (using local expertise) is another. Energy efficiency, driven by insulation, monitoring and recycling technologies is another. Nuclear isn’t the answer.




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