The nuclear "option"

It was probably no more than a happy coincidence (for the Government) that the Planning and Energy White Papers were published on consecutive days. Nevertheless, as most people have noticed, the two are intimately linked by the need for a change to planning policy to enable the development of new nuclear power stations within the ten-year period that would be necessary for them to fill the threatened "capacity gap" in our power generation. Let's not worry here whether that capacity gap is inevitable (it is not) and whether the nuclear power stations will be ready in time, even with the Government's proposed measures, to replace much of the closing capacity (unlikely for much of it). What I want to consider here is the price that is to be paid in terms of the undermining of communities' rights to decide what they are prepared to tolerate in their area.

The Government's consultation paper on nuclear power proposes that, if they decide to enable a new generation of new nuclear stations, they will not intervene financially to support the technology, but they will introduce measures that are almost all focused on reducing the planning obstacles. They should be congratulated on their resistance to providing any direct form of financial leg-up for nuclear, and there is no denying that the Sizewell B enquiry was a circus that environmental groups used to filibuster the process. But are their proposed changes to the planning regime proportionate and consistent with our respect for the rights of individuals and communities not to have developments foisted on them?

The proposals, as listed on p.176 of the nuclear consultation document, are (in modestly truncated form, with emphasis added):

• improving the energy planning system for nuclear power stations by ensuring it gives full weight to national, strategic and regulatory issues that have already been the subject of discussion and consultation, rather than reopening them.
• running a process of Justification to test whether the economic, social and other benefits of specific new nuclear power technologies proposed outweigh the health detriments;
• running a Strategic Siting Assessment process to develop criteria for determining the suitability of sites for new nuclear power stations. This would limit the need to discuss in detail the suitability of alternative sites for nuclear proposals during the planning process;
• taking further our consideration of the high-level environmental impacts through a formal Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA). This would limit the need to consider such highlevel environmental impacts of nuclear power stations during the planning process;
• assisting the nuclear regulators, to pursue a process of Generic Design Assessment of industry preferred designs of nuclear power stations. This would limit the need to discuss these issues such as the safety, security and environmental impact of power station designs, including waste arisings and radioactive discharges in depth during the site-specific planning process; and
• introducing arrangements to protect the taxpayer by ensuring that private sector operators of nuclear power stations securely accumulate the funds needed to meet the full costs of decommissioning and full share of waste management costs. This would avoid the need to discuss in depth during the planning process whether the taxpayer will be exposed to the waste and decommissioning costs of any new nuclear power stations that might be constructed.

That's an awful lot of subjects that need not (read, may not) be discussed in detail during the planning process. If locals fear for their health, or the impact on the environment, or the risk of accident or attack, or believe there are reasons why the location is unsuitable, or the economic risk-prevention is less than adequate, they are to keep their thoughts to themselves. The Government will decide for them and us what is in our best interests. It is inconceivable that anyone other than those involved in determining national policy could have a valid alternative perspective or come up with an aspect that has not already been considered. Truly, our national policy-makers are omniscient. Has history not proved their infallibility time and again?

The most chilling of those proposals is the Justification process. The name has an Orwellian tinge. The process is worse than the name sounds:

"It is an internationally accepted principle of radiological protection that no practice involving exposure to ionising radiation should be adopted unless it produces sufficient benefits to the exposed individuals or to society in general to offset the health detriment it may cause" (para 13.14, p.179). "It is not necessary to show that the class or type of practice is the best of all available options, but instead that there is a net benefit" (para 13.16)

Calculating the "net benefit" to society sounds superficially reasonable if one accepts (to use economists' lingo) the neo-classical fallacy that you can somehow aggregate interpersonal utility. But think what that means in practice. If you have something whose loss would be less important to you than its gain would be to me, there would be a "net benefit" if I stole it from you. Does that justify theft? Or, to use the example of which Murray Rothbard was fond, if 99% of the population can benefit from enslaving the other 1% of the population, does the excess of beneficiaries over victims justify the act? The "greater good" of "society" or "the people" has been used to justify appalling predations and impositions on minorities throughout history.

This is an excellent case in point. A reasonable person might judge that, whatever the benefit to him and to others, he is not entitled to do something that may inflict harm on someone else without their agreement. Some might add the caveat that there may be limited circumstances, where failure to inflict harm on some may cause harm to many others and where there is no alternative that avoids harm to all, where it may be reasonable to inflict that harm (for instance, where the only means to prevent a terrorist atrocity is to shoot dead the terrorist). But it takes a sociopath to argue that one is entitled to inflict harm on people even where there is an alternative that causes harm to none, or simply because there is a compensating benefit to others.

It seems, then, that we have a sociopathic government. If it is found that there is a risk to people's health, that would not rule out development. Instead, those people may be forced to accept that risk and even actual damage to health, if there is sufficient benefit to others. This is authoritarianism of the worst variety, and it does not belong in Britain.