Looking Beyond Nuclear

Looking beyond Nuclear
by Sean Gabb
(12th July 2006)

An easy answer to the question of nuclear power is to ask what Tony Blair thinks about it. Since he has now said he likes it, and since everything he says or does is bad, we have an answer. I feel, however, this answer might gain by a more formal demonstration.

I begin by asserting that nuclear power is inherently dangerous. Heat is generated by the manipulation of highly poisonous and highly unstable materials. These may, unless closely watched, run out of control; or their waste products may escape in various ways. In the past generation, there have been notable misfortunes in America and in the Soviet Union. There was, I am told, a leak from an English power station in the late 1950s—though the main fact of this was hidden by the authorities until the 1980s.

There is now also the possibility of terrorist attacks. An attack on a nuclear power station could well be catastrophic.

Moreover, the waste products remain dangerous indefinitely, and disposing of them requires storage in conditions that will remain safe through all the accidents of time.

I accept that, in principle, nuclear fission is the cheapest known means of generating electricity. The problem is that the associated dangers require safeguards that make it in practice perhaps the most expensive. Because the energy market is so distorted by taxes and subsidies and general regulations, it is worthless to try proving this by any analysis of costs and benefits. I will simply ask whether, in a world without government, there would be many nuclear power stations.

Now, I am not a committed anarchist. But I do regard the likely shape of a stateless society as a partial basis for judging the legitimacy of actually existing institutions. If something could not exist without a government, that is not necessarily a reason for it not to exist. There must, though, be a presumption against its existence. Nothing can be desirable that involves a violation the rights of individuals to life and property acquired by consent. It may be necessary for the prevention of greater evils. But it must, to be accepted, have its case for existing made out on at least the balance of convenience—and perhaps even beyond reasonable doubt.

This being said, I do not think there would be many nuclear power stations in a world without government. Bearing in mind their actual—or just their suspected—dangers, the common law tort of nuisance would prevent any from being built in England. Would you be happy if one were built within 20 miles of your home? Would you knowingly buy property within that sort of radius? I would not—nor would even if they came with safeguards costing ten times what is now spent.

I say, therefore, that nuclear power can only be generated in a territory without much population, and elsewhere only when an enlarged government is able to sweep aside individual complaints and to indemnify the relevant big business interests with legal privilege or financial subsidy.

And I say that there is no overriding convenience to be shown in allowing this departure from the natural order of society. There are alternatives. The use of coal and oil for generating electricity does lead to obvious pollution. But we have been using coal and oil for this purpose for over a hundred years, and the health and the happiness of mankind have been measurably improved thereby. Nor is there any chance that we shall soon run out of these fuels. There is enough of both to last for hundreds of years at current rates of use.

That is my opinion on nuclear power. But I have a further point to make. I dislike nuclear power, and I dislike the conventional means of generating electricity. As said, coal and oil do pollute. I doubt if these pollutions will have anything like the effect claimed by the environmentalists. But they are inconvenient. They are not so harmful as the occasional nuclear accident, but are more continuous.

And our reliance on oil for much of our electricity and most of our transport has raised political difficulties. The majority of the most conveniently accessible oil reserves are in countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran and their neighbours. The high price of oil has corrupted these countries as it would any other. Wealth in these countries is not created by the people and then taxed by the government. Rather, it is acquired by the government as a pure windfall and then distributed to the people. The profits of oil have crowded out other forms of enterprise. Ruling classes have remained or become despotic. Politics have become detached from considerations of economic reality. What arguments do take place over economics concern not so much the conditions in which wealth can be created as the distribution of a wealth created by and continually replenished by outsiders.

Any country without much pre-existing development is likely to be corrupted by the discovery of large oil reserves—see, for example, Nigeria. But in the Islamic countries of the Middle East, it has raised up forms of Islam that did not exist and would not exist in a more commercial environment. Add to this a possibly unjustified obsession with Israel and an undoubted misreading of the historical relationship between Islam and Christendom, and we in the West have a problem. The problem has been greatly worsened by the invasion of Iraq and other specific policies. But it is a problem that would exist nevertheless.

The best answer would be to diminish our reliance on oil. We may always need oil for making chemicals. But there is no inevitability about our need for oil to generate electricity or for transport. If we could find alternatives, the price of oil would drop. The unnatural state of Middle Eastern societies would come to an end. The Islamic world would then implode or become more western in its social and economic structures.

Of course, this is one of the subsidiary arguments for nuclear power. I suspect that if forced to name the lesser of the two evils, I might decide a century of suicide bombers to be preferable to having nuclear power stations all over the place. But I do not see why we need choose between the two. Our reliance on oil is in one important respect as great an evil as nuclear power. It is desirable that we should move away from all our present main sources of energy. The reason is, again, to do with the power of the state.

Big electricity generators, whether nuclear or conventional, and our general fuel requirements are all controlled where not managed by the state. Whether by taxation or by bribes or by jobs for placemen, they are a source of enrichment for our ruling classes. They are all a means of direct social control. If our rulers do not wish us to travel about so much, or if they wish us to use other forms of transport than the motor car, they increase petrol taxes. They are able to encourage preferred forms of enterprise by waiving fuel taxes or waving subsidies. The mere fact of their control puts us in a subordinate position. We feel uneasy in the face of a power that is ultimately able to deprive us of gas and electricity.  We look to that power for a continuance of supply, and are used to begging action if we do not like the prices charged. And this is one of the reasons why we are less jealous of state power than our ancestors were. They had less to lose from challenging an established order that might break down under the pressure of challenge. We are drifting towards the same conditions of absolute and even total government described—however incorrect he was in some of his facts—by Wittfogel in his work on the hydraulic civilisations of Antiquity.

It would be so much better if some means could be found for individual households and businesses to generate their own electricity. In general, I have no time for David Cameron. His plan to build a windmill generator on top of his house makes no commercial sense. It will cost thousands of pounds to generate perhaps ten per cent of his electricity. The return on investment is unlikely to be above one per cent. It is a political gesture.

This being said, the idea in itself is not contemptible. If somebody ever did find a way to generate electricity in the home, the benefits would be great and immediate. It would make us more independent of central authority. It would starve the central authority of tax money. It would reduce the importance and therefore the power of the big oil companies. It would bring down the price of oil. This would eliminate the main enabling cause of Islamic radicalism. It would also bring down the cost of manufacturing most chemicals.

Home generation would make us richer. Our fuel bills would fall. Our use of electricity would expand. It would at last begin to make sense to drive electric cars. Motorways and other roads could be heated in the winter to keep them clear of snow. All production costs would fall.

And it would enrich not only us. Cheap and unlimited electricity would enable the Indians and Chinese to approach our own standards of living.

and it would shut the environmentalists up—or might for a while: at least, it would be necessary for them to find some other overarching threat to the planet apart from carbon emissions.

I have no doubt home generation—or something approaching it—is possible. It is simply a matter of funding the research and development. I do not like government solutions to problems. But this would be a solution to a problem caused by government. I suggest that British energy policy—and this could apply to any other western country—should be as follows:

  1. Withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan. Remove all flagrant excuses for Islamic radicalism. Make some deal with the Iranians. Thereby bring down the price of oil.
  2. Be nice to Mr Putin. Encourage him to make his country a leading supplier of oil and gas. Russia is probably big enough and varied enough not to suffer the attendant problems I have mentioned for the Middle East.
  3. Give up on nuclear power.
  4. Establish a prize of £10 billion, to be paid from our taxes, for any person or persons who can demonstrate some cost effective means of home electricity generation. This would be like the Act of Queen Anne that encouraged the development of means to measure the longitude. The winning technology would be placed immediately in the public domain.

I suggest a prize because this sort of incentive has a record of having worked. As we have seen with the cancer cure industry, direct funding of research and development simply simply establishes bureaucratised empires that suppress investigation outside the favoured—and usually wrong—paradigm.

Does any of the above make sense? I have not enough understanding of the relevant sciences to know. But Mr Blair has not said, and will not say, any of it. That should indicate I am not writing utter nonsense.



  • Maybe it’s more of a Uranium problem than a nuclear problem?

  • Sean home sized nuclear reactors are entirely feasible and you massively overstate the risks. Thorium as above also good.

    And you can of course have your own diesel/petrol generator. A wise move anyway as capacity margins decline.

    You do not mention the huge death toll of coal or oil in the extraction phase.

    • Thorium sounds interesting, but I lack the technical knowledge to say whether it doesn’t sound too good to be true. I certainly don’t fancy uranium.

  • Sean,

    I really do hope that you have changed your view, radically, since you wrote this piece 10 years ago.

    Accidents will happen at all energy generation facilities. And at the industries which supply them. Accidents happen in all human activities. The question is whether the incidence of damage outweighs the benefits. (And, of course, for whom.)

    You refer to Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and (before the event) to Fukushima. How many people died or were harmed in those events – compared to, say, Bush and Blair’s war in Iraq? And while no doubt a nuclear power station could go bang if attacked by terrorists, why would the result be any worse than those events?

    I still favour nuclear power. Have you an idea how much energy is unleashed when you convert a small amount of mass and apply E = m-c-squared? The amounts of dangerous matter in commercial reactors are small. And disposing of them in glass blocks under the Nevada desert (or the Sahara, Gobi, or Namib) seems technically quite simple.

    And that’s just fission. Fusion is another, and potentially far better, ball game.

    Of course, the statists have moved on in the meantime; because people who should have known better failed to oppose their idiocies. Now, they’ve built wind farms all over. A completely stupid way of generating power, because it can’t possibly support the base load needed during a cold (or even a hot) windless spell. As I’ve said elsewhere; when the wind don’t blow, the power don’t flow.

    And solar power might be useful in sunny places, but useless in “nubilous Albion” at more than 45 degrees North.

    For me, the results of our civilization not having enough energy – economic stagnation, and many innocent people freezing or starving to death – are far worse than the risks of nuclear power, or even of becoming dependent on Mr Putin.

    I do like your idea of a prize for solving the problem. But if the prize was administered by the political class, wouldn’t they simply suppress all the entries? And those who submitted them?

    I now return you to your normal programming.

    • I suspect that nuclear, except perhaps in space, is a wrong turn. I don’t know what will replace fossil fuels, but hope it will not require giant infrastructure projects, the equivalent of the water management schemes of the oriental despotisms.

  • There’s only one thing more dangerous than nuclear power, and that’s the idiots who think it’s a good idea.

    • Doubtless some idiots think nuclear power is a good idea. But I don’t take much heed of the views of idiots. Most of whom seem to be opponents of nuclear anyway.

      I take more heed of the many wise men who have soundly based arguments FOR nuclear.

      Our local guru admits his limits on these matters. I seem to recall some very intellectually unsound ideas of heated pavements!

      • I’m sure heated pavements seemed a good idea to someone!

      • ‘Soundly based arguments’ about something that generates power for a few decades which then leaves behind a massive amount of waste that will be dangerous for many hundreds of years?Doesn’t sound very wise to me, but I’d like to hear some of them.

        “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

        • The amounts of seriously dangerous waste are very small. Encapsulating it and burying it in suitable geology is entirely satisfactory.

          But if we adopt the thorium cycle today’s waste can be tomorrow’s fuel.

          • “The amounts of seriously dangerous waste are very small”. It is if you regard the 2000 metric tonnes of high-level radioactive waste created each year, in the US alone, as ‘very small’. There is also over 58,000 metric tonnes of the stuff stored in the US for which there is no permanent repository. You try to make it sound as if there are a couple of suitcases filled with it somewhere.

            From your foolish complacency it is clear that you have swallowed the lies that nuclear industry has been churning out for years at almost the same rate as its dangerous waste.

            • 2000 tonnes will occupy 100 cubic metres if it is pure uranium. Let’s say 1000 cu metres maximum though it will be less. That’s a cube 10m by 10m by 10m. ONE small house. In the whole of America. Which has cubic MILES of suitable underground space.

              The foolishness is in irrational fear, not properly worked out. Windmills kill MILLIONS of birds. Solar cells are widely failing after only a few years use; creating waste and needing energy input to replace. Oil and coal cost lives.

              • Certainly a lot less ominous in actuality then, than how it sounds. The issue is the imagination of most is still captured by disasters that occurred at outdated, government-run/subsidised (through e.g. insurance) entities not following best practice, rather than where the technology currently is or has the potential to move towards.

  • I personally favour nuclear power as part of a mixed economy in energy, alongside both renewable and other non-renewable methods of generation. I think the safety and health problems of nuclear power generation are exaggerated and are largely based on exploiting ignorance about how it works. ‘Nuclear’ strikes fear or nervousness in some people, but the technology is perfectly safe.

    I believe nuclear should be a major source of energy generation for Britain, alongside (for strategic and national industrial reasons) coal, together with renewable sources where these can be exploited without environmental issues.

    I don’t like the windmills: I live on the coast and one of my most favourite walks has been ruined by a wind farm, but for me it’s not a NIMBY matter. Ruining amenity is an issue that shouldn’t be underestimated. We need to generate energy, but we also need to enjoy the ordinary pleasures of life that are ours in a technologically advanced and peaceful country. We shouldn’t blight Britain’s natural beauty, and it’s partly for that reason that I find nuclear power attractive. It’s highly scaled and efficient. You don’t need many nuclear power stations to make a major contribution to the country’s energy mix.

    Having said all that, I do like the idea of a prize for a home electricity generation. I suspect for home electricity plants to be truly efficient, a method for nuclear micro-generation would be needed. It’s important that we keep our hand in with this technology.

    • Nuclear micro-generation is easy and in widespread use throughout the solar system.

      • I’m referring to man-made nuclear reactions.

        Nuclear powers small devices – such as robots and space probes – in the space industry. It should be possible to apply this technology to residential power generation in the form of home-based mini-reactors. The real obstacles are public perception and the politics of nuclear energy, which are dominated by fear and scare-mongering.

        The main development in this direction at the moment is for modular reactors serving local communities (mainly remote and desolate places what they have in mind). My understanding is that for this to be feasible, the technology would have to be passive – i.e. no or little maintenance needed over, say, a 60-70 year time span of the reactor.

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