Looking beyond Nuclear, Sean Gabb, 12th July 2006

Free Life Commentary,
Issue Number 150
12th July 2006

Looking beyond Nuclear
by Sean Gabb

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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 twenty 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.

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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 acutely 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.

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One thought on “Looking beyond Nuclear, Sean Gabb, 12th July 2006

  1. seangabb Post author

    Nuclear power is inherently dangerous

    Radioisotopes are extremely toxic. Many of them take years to break down, despite being highly active. Many of these isotopes do not occur in nature and so living things evolved without the need for defences against them.

    Nuclear reactors contain highly toxic material while releasing large amounts of hard-to-control energy. No parallel exists outside nuclear power generation.

    The only convincing protection in such as system is physical containment. There is a risk, and a risk unlike any other.

    Some might conflate nuclear power with nuclear weapons, but informed critics know the difference.

    By way of context, I am in favour of ever greater use of nuclear power.

    Nuclear power

    The fact that Blair and new Labour were against power stations in general, and Nuclear in particular while in government, ought to tell us that the opposite is the case. Like Thatcher reading the Grauniad every morning, and deciding to do the opposite of what it ranted. Nuclear truly is the lest-bad option for mass distributed electric power generation. Coal, oil and gas are of course older and very very well-understood. I agree it might have been less risky to build Japan's power stations not exactly so near to the North-West-Pacific-Plate-Boundary – perhaps on the other side…but over there you have North Korea, and China, and Siberia….

    The dangers of nuclear reactors are very over-rated. This is because people conflate "nuclear power" with "nuclear bombs". the fuel in reactors is "enriched" in U-235 to about 6-7% by mass, from about 0.6% naturally-occurring. To make a bomb, you need to enrich U-235 to nearly 40% by mass of the subcritical sub-units. Otherwise you won't get the uncontrolled chain-reaction you need. Furthermore, the "waste" radionuclides produced when the fuel is exhausted are themselves useful – for things like batteries for satellites, and tumour radiotherapy, to name but two. Spent fuel rods are almost always reprocessed for re-use: the "green" terror-myth of "dangerous for thousands of years" is very over-hyped. But then again, obviously, you would not give such material to your child to play with. You'd look after it carefully in some out-of-the-way place wile it was waiting to be redone. (The earth's crust is bursting at the seams with radioactiv atoms, which decay all the time, sending out various radiations.)

    If governments all over the world since WW2 had not been socialist (shades of "The Churchill Memorandum" here?) then the development of nuclear power, and more economic use of coal etc, would have proceeded faster and more efficiently. No blind alleys such as wind-turbines (honestly! I ask you!) would have been explored at great and terrible cost, and great delay to the real required solutions of more, and nore concentrated, energy. We might even have had viable electric cars by now…

    Has anyone researched how the French seem to manage with their electricity at about 80% nuclear? They being French, I suspect the solution is statist: but there's a limit to the amount of burnt lorries and rioting that even the French State can stand.

    Law of Returns

    Home generation would require capacity in each home sufficient to generate peak household demand. I very conservatively estimate this at 5 kW. Our current shared system requires sufficient capacity for peak average demand, which is nearer to 1 kW. Very conservatively speaking, home generation would require five times capacity for the same good.

    Ignoring this for a moment, for home generation to compete with shared generation would require that the most competitive industrial process was roughly as economical at a small scale as it would be at a very large scale. That seems unlikely.

    Oops, apologies, I confused

    Oops, apologies, I confused our population with the number of British households. Peak average household demand is probably nearer 2 to 3 kW. My first point stands, though less securely.