Saturday, October 10, 2009

Meltdown Of A Meltdown

I don't really have the qualifications for a blogospheric book reviewer, what with the intermittentcy, the near-hostility to topicality and the extent to which my reading choices are dictated by whatever's in the 3 for 2 at Waterstone's at the time. But with hopefully two years of law textbooks ahead of me and little extra-curricular reading in prospect, I thought I ought to review my last pre-university book, not least because its contents are worth a look and unlikely to be seen.

It was while exploring the Oxfam bookshop in Cardiff with my good friend Justine Hall (who we'll have to forgive for being a Euro candidate for the Greens) that I ran across a copy of Meltdown: The Collapse of the Nuclear Dream. Besides being a book on nuclear politics and thus right in my wheelhouse, it had the added benefit of being written by Crispin Aubrey and bearing a puff quote from Paddy Ashdown.

Crispin's qualifications (for want of a better word) were fairly clear; an investigative journalist by trade, he moved to West Somerset just in time to become a staff member for Stop Hinkley Expansion, the campaign group that co-ordinated opposition at the public inquiry for the planning application for Hinkley Point C. As such, he was at the centre of what environmentalists tend to think of as their golden age, that stretch of time from Sizewell B through Rainbow Warrior via Newbury and Twyford Down to Manchester Airport where they could point to perceived accomplishments.

The subsequent loss of direct action has clearly hurt; the ongoing efforts to rewrite the criminal damage, trespass and assault laws by seeking justification through the courts to invade power plants are evidence enough of that. In that sense, environmentalists would really welcome some new nuclear power stations as an opportunity to revive the golden age, with the events described in Meltdown as the playbook.

Meltdown starts where all anti-nuclear tomes must, inside the exclusion zone at Chernobyl. For a book published in 1991, that's a pretty dumb place to start. During the Hinkley C inquiry ignorance of the facts of the Chernobyl accident was forgivable as the Soviet Union had done a pretty good job of covering them up. But by 1990 the facts had come out, not least in Zhores Medvedev's definitive The Legacy Of Chernobyl, which Crispin references without dealing with its contents which spell out in pretty stark detail just how irrelevant Chernobyl is to nuclear power in Britain.

Still, after such an inauspicious start Meltdown settles down with some useful history, both of the development of nuclear power in the UK and of the development of the protest movements against it. Equally, as that history passes you can see how the logic starts to go awry; there's an entertaining enough tale of some geologists doing preliminary investigations for a deep-level waste repository being chased out of Machynlleth by the local farmers, but the stated moral of the tale is that "it was clear that the scientists had been sent back to their drawing boards". We've been told for years that scientists don't know what to do with waste, but the tale that's told here is of protests leading to a political decision and the politics don't invalidate the science; indeed, thirty years later after Tom King (ironically, the MP for Hinkley Point) decided to abandon work on the repository, Finland are already building theirs and it remains Britain's intent to have one.

It's a tale we've seen only recently with Kingsnorth. I'm no fan of the place by any means, but while the Climate Hi-De-Hiers proclaim victory, I have to ask myself which is more credible; that E-On caved in the face of a bunch of criminals (which, let's be clear, is what they are) or that the project has become somewhat less attractive because of that minor thing we call the credit crunch. Somehow, I get the feeling it's the economy, stupid...

Soon we reach the main event, the public inquiry itself. The account is, unsurprisingly, one of a gallant battle against faceless bureaucrats to allow the voice of the people to be heard. On its own that's fair enough, but underpinning it is the idea that the emotional response of the public should have, not just weight, but decisive weight, in the planning process. Now I'll be the first to say that planning law is too restrictively drawn and that at the local authority level there should be additional grounds that can be considered. But one thing the planning system is very clear on is that the decision should be rational and based on the facts; supplanting that sort of system with mob rule is self-evidently nonsense.

The role of local authorities in marshaling that public opinion is also intriguing. One of the key turning points at Hinkley comes in 1985 when the Liberal Democrats take control of Somerset County Council, without which change the public inquiry might not have happened at all. A motley alliance of local authorities from around the Bristol Channel eventually forms, though this is founded on a base of opposition in South Wales which is rather more pro-coal than it is anti-nuclear.

But the most surprising revelation in that direction is that by 1988, even Anglesey District Council (as was) was prepared to state its opposition to new nuclear power; this on an island where Wylfa Power Station was the biggest employer and Anglesey Aluminium (powered by Wylfa) was second. Crispin sees this as a great moral victory; I'd hazard that it's just possible that a council long dominated by independents unable to form a single cohesive strategic thought was more than able to recognise a populist bandwagon when it rolled into town. In any case, strategically challenged as they were (and indeed remain), at the peak of the boomiest boom for decades it's possible that they may have taken their eye off the economic crystal ball for a moment, something I'm sure the hundreds now being made redundant at Anglesey Aluminium thanks to Wylfa never having been replaced are particularly grateful for.

Either way, by the end of the inquiry and much as they did at Sizewell B, the campaigners conclude that they have won. It's that conviction that the environmentalists are clinging to even now; the idea that even if the government gets its way and someone does try, they can defeat it at the public inquiry.

There are three tiny flaws in this theory. In the first instance, the victory has now been rendered rather pyrrhic. After the year-long Hinkley inquiry and the three-year long Sizewell inquiry with its 340 days of public session, governments came to recognise that actually, a similarly lengthy inquiry on an application by a private company would probably end up mired in both judicial review and misfeasance suits. The Labour government's response, the Infrastructure Planning Commission, is undoubtedly horribly quangocratic but at the same time, if you set out to abuse the public inquiry process you shouldn't be shocked if you have it taken away from you.

Even if you got a public inquiry, the original victory is in any case irrelevant. Because Hinkley C was to be built by the CEGB, a nationalised industry, the public inquiry was allowed to consider, and indeed obsessed over considering, the relative economic merits of it being a nuclear power station. The campaigners sense of victory came largely because the inquiry came right in the middle of the privatisation process which was appallingly botched; it was a late-Thatcher privatisation, that it was appallingly botched was a given. When, however, Electricite de France come along with their new application and the man from Greenpeace asks them about the economics, EdF will tell him or her that it's a commercial matter for EdF and would he mind awfully effing off, preferably at some speed.

Beyond the pyrrhicism and irrelevancy, however, it's most important to note that the victory also never happened. Ultimately, the CEGB's application was approved and the station only failed to be built because the eventual successor companies (the nationalised Nuclear Electric and the privatised British Energy) were never equipped with the resources to do it, again thanks to Maggie's munificence. Should they continue to rely on something that didn't happen twenty years ago and couldn't happen now, I fear the greens might be a mite disappointed.

As for the epilogue, the peer into the future of nuclear, I can't really blame Crispin, writing in 1991, for underestimating just how crucial climate change would become at a time when it was still just the greenhouse effect. His effort to sketch out a low-carbon Britain is still pretty admirable, even if some of the things that have been done (low-energy lightbulbs) haven't stopped the upward trend and some of the things that should have been done (the Severn Barrage) haven't. I'll even allow the primacy given to energy efficiency in general (though I will once again point you to the Khazzoom-Brookes Postulate, the Jevons Paradox and the rock I'm throwing at your head) and the lack of understanding of operating margin in the grid.

At the end, however, you're left with the feeling that despite having lived with the gorillas in the mist, Crispin hasn't understood them. For even his plan foresees significant investment in gas (which we've done, though only so Maggie could be mean to the miners) and clean coal, the very thing the environmentalists are now breaking the law to try and stop. With those elements, it's merely quite far-fetched; without them it's both a pretty good statement of Green policy twenty years on and completely off its tree.

I suppose I should conclude happy in the knowledge that those I oppose live in carefree delusion to what's about to hit them. Until my own party stops living that way, however...

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