Category Archives: Nuclear

Is the UK debate about energy being framed by nuclear industry PR to exclude sustainablity?

Rose Glow

For the last couple of years we’ve been hearing stories about the long-rumoured plans to build a number of new nuclear power stations in the UK.

One thing I don’t see any discussion of is reducing UK demand for grid power by improving our energy-efficiency and by integrated local energy schemes. I think it’s a great pity that demand reduction has been largely left off the media agenda and that the subject of new nuclear builds is being framed in terms of the need for extra grid capacity and excludes any discussion of reducing demand for unsustainable energy systems.

Spin: Nuclear Power will save us from Climate Change

The latest PR justification for scaling up nuclear power in the UK is that it helps to mitigate the effects of climate change and will reduce our dependence on e.g. Russian natural gas over the coming decades. This is not exactly a cut-and-dried argument however. There is currently some debate over whether nuclear energy does have a significant net effect on greenhouse emissions and whether it’s even a viable source of energy, if the costs are fully accounted and limits to the supplies of high-purity ores are considered.

Here’s a site with a great deal of detailed information making a strong case against nuclear power being able to live up to the promises being made for it.

The use of nuclear power causes, at the end of the road and under the most favourable conditions, approximately one-third as much CO2-emission as gas-fired electricity production. The rich uranium ores required to achieve this reduction are, however, so limited that if the entire present world electricity demand were to be provided by nuclear power, these ores would be exhausted within three years. Use of the remaining poorer ores in nuclear reactors would produce more CO2 emission than burning fossil fuels directly.

The arguments to this effect are presented at a technical level comparable to a popular science article in this article

There are other more technical documents available on the site for anyone who wants the heavy details, but that article I linked is pretty accessible.

There is clear evidence of a pro-nuclear industry PR campaign in the UK, which will explicitly try to leverage the climate change argument.

Regaining public acceptance of nuclear power will be one of the PR world’s biggest challenges according to PR guru, Dejan Vercic. Speaking at the 2004 AGM of the UK’s Institute of Public Relations, in June, he said that within 5-10 years PR agencies would have to win back the nuclear industry’s (and biotechnology’s) “licence to operate”.

As the articles I quoted above illustrate, the issues are already being framed in terms of meeting demand using nuclear, rather than reducing that demand. The media debate we’re being presented with currently frames the question about the UK building more nuclear plants, in such a way that improving efficiency of energy use and reducing demand is already excluded in advance. In fact, it appears that no serious consideration of this approach has been made at government level and it is not being discussed in the media now that the debate has reached the public sphere.

I’m suggesting that it should be on the agenda for public debate.

Simply saying “there is no alternative” doesn’t convince me one bit.

According to the Carbon Trust, who aren’t proposing any sort of radical measures, the average business can cut use by 10-30% cost-effectively. At the family level, something on the order of 46,000 kW/hr per household per annum of overall savings are forseeable, through better insulation, by rationalising transport and by evolving away from supermarket consumption of industrial agriculture products and towards sustainable local food systems

In addition, integrated community energy systems can usefully be employed to take a large chunk of the remaining demand away from the national grid.

None of these measures seem to be up for discussion in what passes for public debate on these matters.

Instead the debate is being framed as “Do you want Nuclear or Climate Change?” which seems like industy PR bullshit to me.

The problem I’m describing above seems to me to illustrate one of the key issues with privatizing public services, in this case energy services. When it’s a matter of maximising profitability, the firms in question deliberately distort the debate with the aid of PR companies and lobbyists in order to survive.

Whereas if we were maximising sustainability, a very different set of solutions which are potentially detrimental to the profitability of those firms would tend to emerge. These are precisely the kinds of solutions which are invisible in the public debate we’re now witnessing about the UK’s energy future.

I would frame the question differently. Instead of saying “Do you want nuclear or climate change?” let’s frame it as “Do you want an Enron-ised energy future or a sustainable one?” Markets and the state will never give us the latter of their own accord, so if we want to put real sustainability on the agenda we have to put it there ourselves.

It may perhaps be that nuclear is the only feasible alternative in the circumstances, but I don’t think it’s legitimate to act as though that were a given, without first showing how these other possibilities were considered and eliminated for reasons supported by proper evidence.

Alternatives

There are obviously a great many possibilities. The one I’m most interested in is community level autonomous action to reduce demand. The most effective measure overall, when you do the maths, is probably moving towards sustainable food systems, e.g. by urban agriculture, effective nutrient reclamation and ruralisation measures to reduce food system energy inputs.

In terms of grid electricity, it’s probably insulation and passive measures, followed by integrated community energy systems. (e.g. Combined Heat and Power, various kinds of solar, local storage etc.)

It’s worth considering though, just to get a baseline on this issue, that when the Soviet Union went out of business, Cuba had to adjust to losing, and that means losing virtually overnight, not just 70-odd% of its energy inputs but 70-odd% of its food imports, fertilisers and pesticides and 80-odd% of its raw material inputs. They had a really tough decade or so, but they managed to adapt

We’re talking about building a whole bunch of nuclear plants, a short-term measure at best given the global supply of high-quality ores, apparently in order to cover a much smaller shortfall, someone above said 20%. That seems rather odd unless you factor in the impact of nuclear industry lobbying.

Getting Sustainability onto the Agenda

I think autonomously doing something about it ourselves is an excellent way to help put it on the agenda, because it demonstrates in a concrete way that reducing demand and improving effciency is quite possible. If you can get a whole bunch of people moving in that direction together, its also a flat challenge to the corporate/state approach, and it forces the issue, especially when combined with well-established environmentalist campaigning methods for doing that stuff.

One straightfoward thing to do is start badgering the media and your MP and so on via a letter writing campaign for leaving this question off the agenda.