The Lib Dems can keep the lights on

Simon Hughes responds to Mark Lynas and defends his call for an independent inquiry into nuclear pow

Delusion is not a necessary consequence of becoming a Conservative supporter. Yet in Mark Lynas's case this seems to have been one of the results. Lynas's attack piece on Liberal Democrat energy policy was one of the most delusional pieces of writing I have read in a long time, and utterly lacking in foundation.

Lynas accuses me of ignoring the "science" and laments my comments on BBC Radio 4 on the health effects of nuclear power. According to him, there is no plausible scientific case for this.

I presume he refers to my call for an independent inquiry into the "justification" for nuclear power. "Justification" is the process of assessment of the health effects of nuclear power and is a legal requirement before any new nuclear plant can operate in the UK. One of the means by which it can be carried out is through a public inquiry.

The purpose of my call was precisely so that scientific evidence could be examined in the open, and that nuclear scientists, other experts and the public can participate in the decision-making process for new nuclear power in a meaningful way. This call was supported by roughly 80 leading research academics and nuclear scientists in the UK.

If Lynas is so convinced that the health detriments of nuclear are simply an urban myth as he claims, he too should have no problem with a public inquiry. He may however also know that the nuclear power lobby is worried that since the publication of the KiKK study by the German government in 2008 "justification" may not survive more detailed scrutiny.

The KiKK study found that there was a doubling of the incidence of childhood leukaemia within five kilometres of every single German nuclear power station. The study is considered to be one of the best and most complete scientific examinations carried out into the effects of nuclear reactors on public health. It clearly passes the plausibility test.

Perplexing preference

The Lynas article also makes the alarmist and unfounded claim that if Liberal Democrats are in government and nuclear power is dropped, the lights will go out. This is not just a difference of opinion; it is objectively untrue. With the best will in the world there will not be a new nuclear power station built in this country within seven years.

The power stations coming offline over the next decade meant that we need new power generation to come online to replace them before that. With the huge capital costs of nuclear (current estimates are that each reactor will cost not less than £5bn), and the investment this would take away from other sources, nuclear power could actually hinder our chances of bringing the necessary new sources of energy online.

Lynas commends Conservative energy policy and criticises Labour for dragging its feet. I find this perplexing. Lynas has been involved in and written about energy issues for many years now. He therefore must know that in 2006 David Cameron was criticising Labour's commitment to nuclear power as irresponsible. He must also know that as recently as six months ago Zac Goldsmith was saying that no new nuclear power stations would be built under a Tory administration.

If the industry is looking for political stability, it would do a lot better than to look to the Conservative Party.

Need for action

I could go on. I could talk about Lynas's use of the somewhat distasteful phrase "closer to normal mortality rates" to describe the many cancer victims recorded in the vicinity of Chernobyl, or the huge economic and safety concerns surrounding nuclear waste, or the fact that nuclear power is the least cost-effective way of reducing carbon emissions.

But the real problem with his article is that polemics of this kind are exactly what has eroded public confidence in the need to combat climate change. I and others who are fully convinced of the necessity of action on climate change need to get out and about more, engage with the public and make the case.

We need to demonstrate that the decisions that we make are based on the strongest possible evidence and foundations of scientific inquiry. We are not helped by people like Lynas, who claim to be the guardians of "science" while making personal attacks on anyone who dares to disagree. In the end, the only people they discredit are themselves.

Simon Hughes is the MP for North Southwark and Bermondsey. He is the Liberal Democrat shadow secretary of state for energy and climate change

UPDATE: Read Mark Lynas's response to Simon Hughes's article here.

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The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.