Energy policy, Nuclear Power and the Parallel Universe

by George Hatjoullis

History of the use of nuclear power (top) and ...

History of the use of nuclear power (top) and the number of active nuclear power plants (bottom). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of the weaknesses of democratic process is that voters are often making judgements about issues on which they have incomplete information and even less competence (about the issues). This is inevitable but it begs the question how do they make judgements? Many seem to follow the lead of those they regard as ‘authoritative’. It is a ‘they probably know best’ approach. However, as I have illustrated in an earlier blog (Measles, global warming and the construction of knowledge), people are far more sophisticated. They recognise the uncertainty that is created by their incomplete knowledge and lack of expertise and act according to the consequences of error. They tend to try to avoid the error that they perceive to be least desirable for them. Hence, in the debate on global warming many side with the scientists because if they are correct humanity will cause its own destruction. Best avoid if we can, they conclude. In the case of the MMR vaccine many sided with (and still side with) a minority view that the vaccine might cause autism. Better to risk measles, mumps and rubella for their child than any chance of autism, they conclude. In both cases they have incomplete information and lack the expertise to make an informed judgement. They pick an ‘authoritative’ voice and heed it according to what they fear most. Probability and cost do not enter the debate.

The global warming debate links directly into energy policy and the Hinkley Point decision. Nick Butler of the FT provides an excellent summary of the issues ( and is consistently one of the sensible voices in the energy debate. The point I wish to highlight here relates to the perception of nuclear power. For most of my life Nuclear Power was a problem. Safety was a concern and the issue of what to do with the waste was always cropping up. One day I went to sleep and woke up in a parallel universe and it had become part of the solution. Fossil fuels were the new evil because of the fear of global warming and the overwhelming conclusion that burning fossil fuels was a major contributor. Nuclear Power became part of the solution while I slept. Nice clean nuclear power. Huh?

I am assured that Nuclear Power is now safe (by, amongst others, my eldest son, the english major). I will accept ‘safer’. When I press on the matter of the waste however there is silence. So where will it go and how will it be made safe? A deafening silence. One of the justifications for the Hinkley Point development is that it will help the UK achieve its target carbon emissions. Nick Butler lists other ways to achieve this and at lower cost. More important he lists alternatives to Nuclear Power. I too am applying the principle of judgement under uncertainty. I cannot judge the safety of Hinkley Point but I can envisage the consequences of an accident. Moreover, I have no clue as to what the long-term consequences of an accumulation of waste might be.

This is not to say that I approve of fossil fuel. There are reasons to want to reduce reliance on such fuels other than global warming. Solar power seems a good way to go as well as more energy efficiency. The latter is happening steadily though given the ancient housing stock in the UK it can only progress so fast. Solar power, however, may not be being exploited as quickly as is technically possible. I do not see solar panels on many UK roofs. Indeed this is a point of irritation with me. I live in a Grade 2 listed building set in a conservation area. I have a long south-facing roof which would be ideal for solar panels. However, I am not allowed. I favour conservation but there is a trade-off for everything. Moreover, conservation for me does not mean fossilisation but retaining the essence of what is good from the past. Ironically I believe the architect that built my home would have approved of solar panels. Instead I have to accept Hinkley Point.