2000s >> 2006 >> no-1224-august-2006


Radioactive days

Anyone who expressed shock, surprise, horror or helpless mirth at the government’s decision to give the go-ahead to a new round of nuclear power stations in the UK deserves a slap and a strong injunction to wake up and smell the plutonium. This was always
going to happen, so get used to it. Some people may have thought, in the wake of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and the revelations of gross and grotesque safety infringements by nuclear companies in the 70’s and 80’s, that nuclear’s goose was cooked, and that public opinion was irreversibly set against its comeback. Such optimists underestimate the power of creeping propaganda by the
state and overestimate the collective memory of the public.

What, besides a lot of bilge about new safety procedures and new ideas about waste disposal, has really swung it for the nuclear lobby is the increasing fear that we, in the West, are either going to be hostages to the mullahs in Iran or those commies in Venezuela for oil, or hostages to the Russian mafia for gas (who have shown themselves quite capable of turning off the taps if they don’t get the price they want).

Blair’s government have played a clever game of buttering up the public with so-called energy reviews, which were really about acclimatizing public opinion to the inevitable. The greens have been effectively neutralized, being unable to find a
way out of the environmental frying pan of fossil fuels without hitting the fire of nuclear fission, while emerging research into wind power has set back alarmingly the time necessary for this technology  to start being a net carbon saver, from an estimate of 18 months by the wind turbine industry itself to between 8 and 16 years by independent researchers, on a projected 25 year turbine life span (New Scientist, July 8).
And could there be another and darker reason why nuclear is back on the agenda and the same money is not going to be spent either on renewables, or even more sensibly, insulating houses and finding ways to reduce consumption? The original reason for the nuclear programme was that not only could you run steam turbines
with the resulting water vapour but you could also build bombs to vaporize your political and economic rivals, and the reasoning still holds good, in a world of ageing nuclear arsenals and an emergent superpower, China, whose expected ruthlessness in suppressing global competitors may be judged by its ruthlessness in suppressing its own people.

But the bitterest pill for environmentalists to swallow is that the government’s case on nuclear is actually pretty hard to fault. Renewables provide about 4 per cent of the UK’s energy supply and the most massive expansion programme imaginable is not going to increase that amount to a significant level for decades,whereas the threat of strangulation from global suppliers of oil and gas is immediate and stark, as are the spiralling price rises.

While the USA and the UK may with impunity invade Iraq when its chieftain starts monkeying around with oil supplies, the same tactic is hardly going to work in Venezuela, heavily backed by China, or in Russia, which nobody has ever invaded without immediately and solemnly wishing they hadn’t. There are no other emergent technologies. Fusion is still decades away, and always will be, according
to the old joke. Cold fusion is, according to the accepted wisdom, just a joke. As hydro goes bigger, the cracks in the dams start to appear, much to the embarrassment of Chinese engineers, and the energy of wind appears to be best harnessed by building on, and effectively destroying, millions of tons of peat bog, itself a massive carbon sink.

If socialism were established tomorrow, the question of nuclear energy would take a back-seat, behind more pressing questions of food production. But it would re-emerge, amid a hotly disputed debate over energy consumption and reduction. A socialist society which had to find energy out of nowhere and with no time
to develop renewables, might conceivably go nuclear, at least for a time. But it is not a racing certainty, or even an ambling probability.

If one were to take away the factors of capitalist competitive production which so completely influence the present controversy one would be left with a more rational basis for planning, which would take into account global minimum energy requirements, both domestic and industrial, rather than global optimum industrial performance to outdo business rivals. If Europe, for example, didn’t have to stay one jump ahead of South East Asia and China in manufacturing stakes, and if China wasn’t in such an all-fired rush to industrialise simply to compete on global markets, the question of energy might be approached in an altogether calmer and more globally sustainable way.
But in capitalism, the energy question is really one of global dominance. The power at stake is really political and economic. Whether the source of that power is from nuclear fission, fossil fuels, or farting Friesians, is entirely beside the point.

The Sting

The ongoing war between mainstream scientists and the homeopathic community,
which recently saw the Royal Veterinary Society obliged to withdraw a list of homeopathic  vets from its website after a storm of protests from the scientific
community, has begun to assume farcical proportions. Now holidaymakers are returning home with malaria after refusing conventional anti-malarial drugs in favour of homeopathic ‘alternatives’ (BBC Online, July 13).

An undercover investigation by the groupSense About  Science and BBC’s Newsnight programme revealed that homeopathic consultants were telling people they didn’t need the ‘horrible’ conventional drugs and could safely use homeopathic medications, which on analysis turned out to be 99.99 per cent water with a virtually undetectable level of quinine.

When challenged by Newsnight, the clinics claimed this was a mistake, and that clients were told to consult their doctors, a claim not supported by the secretly recorded interview transcripts.

However, all this doesn’t seem quite fair on the hardworking homeopaths. Being in a sympathetic mood, Pathfinders offers the following explanation: what the clinics really meant to say was that their remedies were indeed perfectly effective,
but only against homeopathic mosquitoes.

 The fact that mosquitoes are usually in the habit of delivering large and potentially
deadly doses of malaria is a disappointing reflection on their unchristian natures but this can hardly be blamed on homeopathic clinics, who are only trying to help.

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