Few situations demonstrate the reactive nature of central government better than the energy question.
Faced with a popular tide of opposition to new nuclear build on the one hand, and the utter impossibility
of meeting the 40% energy shortfall expected in the next two decades with renewables, it’s easy to see why
Blair’s government is desperate to keep treading the fine wire of non- commitment. When in doubt, do and
say nothing, and maybe tomorrow the situation will change. It wasn’t always so. Nuclear fission energy was once the Philosopher’s Stone of science that was to herald a brave new world of clean and efficient energy for all time.
But the optimism didn’t last long, and in the wake of Windscale 1957, the Silkwood affair, and later Three Mile
Island and, catastrophically, Chernobyl, the public infatuation with this futuristic technology was well and
truly over. Nowadays the questions they should have asked back in the 50’s come easily to the lips of the
general public – who says it’s safe, who says it’s cheap, and what about the waste?
But western capitalism is in a bit of a fix, because, quite apart from any fluffy consideration of fossil fuel
emissions and the ozone layer, the real issue is that the remaining deposits of oil, coal and gas are largely under the control of Russia and China. Solar, wind and wave energy contribute only a tiny fraction of the national grid and never look likely to manage more than 20 per cent even in the government’s wildest fantasies.
Some excitement has been generated recently over the decision to start building the ITER nuclear fusion reactor at Caderache in Southern France, something of a coup for the EU and one in the eye for Japan, who has been arm-wrestling for the right to host this plant for years. Fusion, it ought to be pointed out, has made some progress in recent years. Gone are the days when it consumed vastly more energy thanit produced – the new larger reactors have seen to that. And it’s remarkably clean and efficient. Instead of burning fossil fuels and releasing their stored electromagnetic energy, you fuse heavy hydrogen isotopes together and in the process unleash the vastly more powerful force that holds protons and neutrons together – about 10 million times more powerful. Best of all, the main waste product is helium, which is useful for balloons, airships and at staff Xmas parties for giving the managers squeaky voices, but is otherwise a non-toxic, inert element.
So what’s the catch? The ITER plant is not even a prototype reactor, it is a pre-prototype, designed to test
whether the materials and construction can stand up to the sun- like 100 million degrees centigrade necessary for nuclear fusion to occur. Nobody knows if the material can take it, and until they do, nobody would dare build a real reactor. So we could still be looking at fifty years before fusion is contributing anything to the national grid. So, in the meantime, it could be back to good old filthy fission.
What is, for a socialist, strange to the point of comical in all this, is that in all the energetic debate about the
pending energy crisis, when all the ageing reactors are closed down and there’s nothing to replace them with,
nobody, not one politician, or media pundit, or social commentator, ever suggests that we just take a forty per
cent drop in energy consumption and live with it. How can we continue to live the nightmare life of the motorway
commuter without petrol? Oh no, we can’t possibly give that up, we’ll have to use hydrogen. How do we continue
to have all our cities’ department stores lit up every night like Christmas trees so people can window-shop at 4
am? Dread thought that consumers should have their nocturnal browsing habits constrained, we need to
develop fusion technology. How do we keep selling the public more and more energy? Simple, we persuade them to live in ‘smart’ houses where even the tin-opener discusses Kant.
Capitalism is not, of course,really interested in saving energy. Energy companies could offer customer discounts to those who were frugal, but in fact that’s not the way to make money. Some years ago a group called CORE (Cumbrians Opposed to a Radioactive Environment) demonstrated that it was possible to provide cavity-wall and loft insulation for every house in England and Wales for less than the cost of one nuclear power station, and at a
net energy saving greater than that produced by the same nuclear power station. So saving energy is not the
point, using as much as possible in as profligate a way as possible is where the money is at, which fact
demonstrates, as few situations can do better, the reactive nature of capitalism and the inability of common
sense to prevail where the cash incentive is concerned.