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Home > Politics

Bye Bye Oil Crisis, Hello Uranium Crisis

15 July 2006

The Prime Minister felt the hand of history on his shoulder once again this week. Take a look at this photograph from Wednesday's Independent.

There he stands, inspecting an offshore windfarm in Kent, every inch the concerned statesman.

Intentionally or not, it's a picture rich with symbolism and meaning. Is Blair gazing into the future, away from the metaphorical depths that threaten to engulf humanity? Is he physically and symbolically turning his back on wind power? Has he seen a much sexier nuclear power station on the shoreline? We'll concede he couldn't very well have his photo taken *facing* the turbine, good gracious, no. Then he'd have been yet another generic balding, greying middle-aged man in a nondescript windcheater, like a trainspotter gone up in the world.

(It is quite possible, of course, that the photographer caught Blair off guard and the Prime Minister, with the police circling his loans-for-honours scam like dead-eyed Great Whites, was in fact wistfully pondering whether the ship he was on, the Celtic Storm, had enough fuel to reach a non-extradition treaty country.)

After all his tossing (on the high seas, obviously) the Prime Minister has professed his love of nuclear power as everybody knew he would - all that joining CND crap was just him playing hard to get. The Government's Energy Review released this week announced that a new generation of nuclear power stations is to be built. 'Switch off the mind and let the heart decide' as Thomas Dolby once sang in his song - get this - 'Windpower'. It's a line that sums up nearly every decision Blair's made from waging wars to doing his Holly Golightly impression around millionaire lobbyists and party donors (we all know what those $50 bills were really for. And unlike Holly, Tony *always* puts out).

'Energy security' was a big element of the energy review. The term is actually code for not having to rely on unpredictable swarthy foreigners for oil (like most New Labour projects, the democratisation of the oil-producing nations in the Middle East is waaaaaaaay behind schedule) and an increasingly volatile Vladimir Putin - with his Cold War nostalgia - for our gas. The majority of the uranium needed for nuclear energy production comes from nice white, trustworthy western liberal democracies - most prominent among the producers being Canada and Australia. However, election-rigging, bribe-taking, prisoner-torturing Kazakhstan is coming up on the inside in the uranium production stakes and is predicted to become one of the biggest producers in the next ten years. Expect it to be diplomatically fellated in the years to come just as brutal-but-oil-rich Saudi Arabia has been.

The contradictions in the replace-oil-for-uranium-and-bingo! argument seem to have been overlooked somewhat by mainstream commentators. The point nobody seems to have made this week is, like oil and gas which it is expected to largely replace under the plans in the Energy Review, uranium is a *finite* resource. It was an issue studiously avoided by the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King, in his it's-nuclear-or-nothing scaremongering in The Independent yesterday. As with oil and gas, what happens when the uranium runs out? Some estimates suggest that current global reserves will be exhausted in as little as fifty years. The rate of consumption of uranium will only increase if more nuclear power stations are built in order to reduce our reliance on oil and gas-generated electricity, meaning those reserves may be depleted even faster. That makes declarations of nuclear power as a herald of future energy security and stability sound a bit over-optimistic.

The Fast Breeder Reactor, a power station that produces more material than it uses, is still very much experimental technology (the UK actually cancelled its research programme in 1994). There is a process that extracts uranium from seawater which is rich in the element, but the energy needed to do so (the process requires electricity) coupled with the high costs involved currently makes it the economic and technological equivalent of trying to turn lead into gold. Future technological advances may come to our aid (and there are many, many people keeping their fingers crossed) but we're still very much at the blind faith stage. Building new nuclear power stations starts to look a bit like buying a record player just as the record companies phase out vinyl.

Then there is the environmental impact of nuclear power. What to do with the highly toxic waste and power stations that have outlived their use - the cost and safety implications - are familiar arguments. Nuclear power has less of an impact on the environment producing none of the greenhouse gases that oil and gas power stations do. But there are other environmental factors. Energy is required to convert the raw uranium into a useable form. Toxic and radioactive by-products of the mining of uranium in Australia have caused serious environmental damage. (The land where the ore was hidden was also home to aboriginal tribes who obviously had to be evicted but that's a small price to pay for powering a generation's PlayStations.)

The power stations themselves, it is hoped, will be built by the private sector. As has been seen before, when it comes to the provision of vital public services, the private sector has the Government by the balls (the Government having willingly and gently lowered its genitals into the private sector's hands in the first place). That's how the water companies can piss away millions of litres every day while paying themselves lakes of cash. What is the government going to do, sack them? It's why the Government had to bail out British Energy, the country's largest electricity generator, to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds a few years back. What else was it going to do, let the company go bust leaving millions of people in the dark?

And so, you'd be forgiven for thinking, it'll be the same when it comes to building nuclear power stations. Do we really expect that the Government will sit back and let its long-term energy plans come to grief if the companies building them cock it up, get into difficulties or, as in the instance of the Skye Bridge being built when the private contractors refused to build the road leading to it, simply decide to take the piss?

There are alternatives to nuclear of course and it was heartening to see the Government express an aspiration to expand the use of renewable sources of energy such as wind and wave. Wind power, in particular, has its detractors. To hear some talk of them, you'd think wind turbines had been designed by a paedophile and the electricity they produce used to light the mansions we give to asylum seekers. There are those who think they are noisy and unsightly. If that's your only argument then stick them somewhere you can't see or hear them. There's an offshore windfarm near Fleetwood in Lancashire which is barely visible to the naked eye nor audible to the unclad ear.

We know we're not alone here at TFT in feeling that the turbines' looks and noise are all part of their charm. The turbines in the countryside just outside Shipley in Yorkshire rear out of the hills, whoooooshing like a benign alien invasion, as you round the bend in the road. The windfarm on the shoreline of industrialised Workington in the Cumbria looks like the same aliens have waded ashore from the depths (and they certainly detract aesthetically from the miserable cigarette filter factory on one side and the cereal packet manufacturer on the other).

Which brings us back to the sea. Tony Blair, as he sets his jaw towards the far horizon and prepares to set sail for pastures and disasters new, clearly hopes his legacy will be a nuclear one. Let's hope, unlike his other dreams for us, this plan doesn't turn out to be the usual litany of incompetence, corruption, deceit and dark comedy. Hopefully, if the lights do go out, we won't all be glowing in the dark.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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