Dead Men Left

Friday, December 16, 2005

Nuclear power and the free market

David King, the government’s chief scientific advisor inadvertently spilling the beans about nuclear power:

I emphatically do not believe in direct government subsidies for nuclear energy. The decisions about the economics will be made by the private utilities sector, guided by government considerations on the need to meet our emissions targets and to have a secure energy supply.

This isn’t “political expediency”, so much as repeating the TINA mantra that guides all policy: the government is inherently badly placed to make decisions, therefore let the free-market do it. The logic that demands more nuclear power plants – and dismisses any alternatives – is grounded in the idea that only decentralised and market-based policy implementations can really work, and that the market should not be interfered with.

This is questionable at the best of times. When applied to the environment, it is downright ludicrous. The fact that so many activities, via the market, simply dump their costs on the environment is as good an example of market failure as you could hope to find. We shouldn’t be attempting to prop up and even maintain these failures. We can’t tackle global warming on a piecemeal basis: there is an urgent need for central planning: for a central strategy that encompasses transport, housing, food consumption, industrial use, and so on, and addresses each from a determination to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the most equitable manner possible.

It is folly, then, to think we can leave the economy largely unmolested by swapping gas- and coal-burning power plants for nuclear. It’s not carbon-neutral, in any case, and – despite King’s pious hopes – it is so unsafe and so hideously expensive that an extension of the UK’s nuclear power schemes will require extensive government intervention. Far better to apply the state’s resources to tackling the problems at source, which means (as a first step) radically improving public transport, serious investment in sustainable energy, imposing the true costs of greenhouse gas emissions on producers, and subsidising energy-efficient consumption.