Japan and the future of nuclear power

Global public opinion will shift against nuclear power.

For now, Japan has avoided a full-scale nuclear disaster. A hydrogen explosion at Fukushima No 3 nuclear plant earlier this morning injured 11 people and collapsed a reactor building but officials report that the core is still intact and that radiation levels are below legal limits. Seawater is still being pumped into the reactor in a desperate attempt to cool it down.

But what one can say with confidence is that the crisis will shift public opinion everywhere against nuclear power. Japan, which currently relies on nuclear plants to generate roughly 29 per cent of its electricity, had planned to increase this to as much as 40 per cent by 2017. That now looks distinctly unlikely.

In Britain, the Energy Secretary, Chris Huhne, a reluctant convert to nuclear power, will struggle to sell a new generation of reactors to a sceptical electorate. In an interview on Sunday, he suggested that public opinion in the UK would be "very influenced" by the investigation in Japan.

But with the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster just a few weeks away, the fear that history could repeat itself in Fukushima will incline all but the most ardent supporters of nuclear power against the technology. Even if, as Huhne rightly pointed out, "we don't live in a seismically active earthquake zone", the dramatic TV images of exploding reactors will leave an abiding impression. In his Daily Telegraph column, Boris Johnson beats the drum for nuclear power ("more essential with every day that passes") but few others will be prepared to do so.

Yet while the world is transfixed by the threat of a nuclear disaster, the death toll from the tsunami and the worst earthquake in Japan's history, now estimated at more than 10,000, continues to rise.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Will the House of Lords block Brexit?

Process, and a desire to say "I told you so" will be the real battle lines. 

It’s the people versus the peers, at least as far as some overly-excited Brexiteers are concerned. The bill to trigger Article 50 starts its passage through the House of Lords today, and with it, a row about the unelected chamber and how it ought to behave as far as Brexit is concerned.

This week will, largely, be sound and fury. More peers have signed up to speak than since Tony Blair got rid of the bulk of hereditary peers, triggering a 200-peer long queue of parliamentarians there to rage against the dying of the light, before, inevitably, the Commons prevailed over the Lords.

And to be frank, the same is ultimately going to happen with Article 50. From former SDPers, now either Labour peers or Liberal Democrat peers, who risked their careers over Europe, to the last of the impeccably pro-European Conservatives, to committed Labour and Liberal politicians, there are a number of pro-Europeans who will want to make their voices heard before bowing to the inevitable. Others, too, will want to have their “I told you so” on record should it all go belly-up.

The real battle starts next week, when the bill enters committee stage, and it is then that peers will hope to extract concessions from the government, either through defeat in the Lords or the threat of defeat in the Lords. Opposition peers will aim to secure concessions on the process of the talks, rather than to frustrate the exit.

But there are some areas where the government may be forced to give way. The Lords will seek to codify the government’s promise of a vote on the deal and to enshrine greater parliamentary scrutiny of the process, which is hard to argue against, and the government may concede that quarterly statements to the House on the process of Brexit are a price worth paying, and will, in any case, be a concession they end up making further down the line anyway.

But the big prize is the rights of EU citizens already resident here.  The Lords has the advantage of having the overwhelming majority of the public – and the promises of every senior Leaver during the referendum campaign – behind them on that issue. When the unelected chamber faces down the elected, they like to have the weight of public opinion behind them so this is a well-chosen battleground.

But as Alex Barker explains in today’s FT, the rights of citizens aren’t as easy to guarantee as they look. Do pensions count? What about the children of EU citizens? What about access to social security and health? Rights that are easy to protect in the UK are more fraught in Spain, for instance. What about a British expat, working in, say, Italy, married to an Italian, who divorces, but wishes to remain in Italy afterwards? There is general agreement on all sides that the rights of Brits living in the rest of the EU and citizens of the EU27 living here need to be respected and guaranteed. But that even areas of broad agreement are the subject of fraught negotiation shows why those “I told you sos”  may come in handy sooner than we think.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.