Why no party can afford to be anti-nuclear

The Lib Dems must abandon their anti-nuclear stance and develop a realistic energy policy.

Of all the dangers of a hung parliament, the lights going out is not thought to be one of them. Yet this could be the perverse result, if the Liberal Democrats end up holding the balance of power and insist on halting the UK's nuclear new-build programme as their condition for joining any cross-party coalition. Already, the heads of companies such as RWE npower are reconsidering nuclear investments and holding back until the political landscape becomes clearer.

This is a mistake the Lib Dems do not need to make. They could learn the lesson of the German Greens, who made closing the country's nukes a condition for joining the Social Democrat-led coalition in 1998 -- a policy that has resulted in proposals for dozens of new coal-fired plants in an effort to address Germany's looming energy gap.

By attempting to be populist but appearing merely outdated, the Lib Dems have produced an energy policy that is by far the least realistic of the plans by the three major parties. On 19 March, the Conservatives launched a sensible plan for a carbon tax on electricity generation to encourage investment in both nuclear and renewable power. After years of dithering, Labour is now on track with its large-scale offshore wind programme, nuclear new-build and major grid upscaling.

The Lib Dems are left with wishful thinking. The writer David MacKay summarised their approach in his book Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air as "Plan L", which would leave a zero-carbon Britain dependent on imports for two-thirds of its electricity, and on coal for much of the rest. (This is "clean coal" -- a technology yet to be invented on the required scale.)

I was puzzled to hear the Lib Dem energy spokesman, Simon Hughes, lamenting, on Radio 4's The World Tonight, the "health effects" of nuclear power as a reason for his opposition to it, even though no plausible scientific case can be made. Coal, on the other hand, kills thousands every year -- in the United States, 23,600 people suffer a premature death due to coal's dirty emissions. That's 35 per plant per year, meaning that, in all probability, my local coal plant at Didcot has already killed more people than Chernobyl.

Hughes would do well to consult Wade Allison's new book, Radiation and Reason. Allison, professor of physics at Oxford University, begins by reminding us that out of all the radiation we each receive annually, half comes from naturally occurring radon, 9.5 per cent from "the decay of radioactive atoms that occur naturally within the human body", 15 per cent from medical procedures and less than 0.5 per cent from other man-made sources. Less than 0.1 per cent comes from the discharges from civil nuclear power. Hughes's arguments about putative health effects are just recycled urban myths.

Allison's book looks at evidence from Chernobyl and Hiroshima which demonstrates that very low doses of radiation are unlikely to have negative health effects, and may even be beneficial. (Of those who took a big hit in Chernobyl, roughly 50 died from radiation poisoning; others with lower doses have closer-to-normal mortality rates.) Further evidence comes from radiotherapy, which exposes people to radiation to defeat cancer -- without causing new tumours in consequence.

In other areas, the Lib Dems take science seriously. My local MP, Evan Harris, has recently distinguished himself in the campaign to show that homoeopathy is bogus. I hope he can persuade Hughes and the wider party to base their energy policy on science, rather than conjecture.

This article appears in this week's edition of the New Statesman.

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Mark Lynas has is an environmental activist and a climate change specialist. His books on the subject include High Tide: News from a warming world and Six Degree: Our future on a hotter planet.

This article first appeared in the 29 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Hold on tight!

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.