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By attempting to be populist but appearing merely outdated, the Lib Dems have produced an energy policy that is by far the least realistic of the plans by the three major parties.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.