The Socialist 3 June 2008
Don't just get angry - get active
Nuclear power: An expensive and dangerous failure
An energy policy partly based on nuclear power, as the government is proposing, obviously raises deep concerns about safety. Some of the most memorable serious accidents were at Windscale (now Sellafield) in 1957, the SL-1 incident in Idaho in 1961, which killed three people and the nuclear submarine fire at Liverpool docks in 1976. Then of course there were the disasters at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986. But, it is also the sheer uneconomic nature of nuclear power that makes it an abject failure as a major energy source worldwide.
In the years after World War Two the nuclear industry alleged that their "sunshine units" would be an endless source of cheap, clean electricity. The Wilson Labour government in the 1960s claimed that this electricity would be "too cheap to meter"!
For years the UK's state-owned electricity generating board CEGB, wrongly declared in its annual reports that nuclear was the cheapest generator of electricity. Successive governments did not question this. But, in reality it was coal-fired power stations that subsidised the costs of nuclear electricity production.
In 1981 the Committee for the Study of the Economics of Nuclear Electricity (CSENE) unravelled the distortions and assumptions used by the CEGB. The CSENE exposed the accounting methods used to promote the fiction of nuclear power's 'cheapness'.
All nuclear power stations had experienced massive cost over-runs, but the CEGB's accounting methods gave prejudiced results against non-nuclear electricity generation.
The nuclear industry proved how unprofitable it really was after privatisation. In 1996 the newly created British Energy acquired seven Advanced Gas Reactor (AGR) stations and the country's only commercial pressurised water reactor (PWR) for £1.5 billion.
Actual construction costs had amounted to more than £50 billion, with more than £3 billion spent on the Sizewell PWR.
This government sell-off was denounced as an obscene giveaway at the time.
But, by 2002, having competed for electricity sales against non-nuclear electricity generators, British Energy's losses inevitably accumulated.
In less than a year, in the biggest write-off of capital in the UK till then, the company's market value plummeted to about £100 million. British Energy had to go cap in hand to New Labour for a massive hand-out so it could continue to trade.
Despite protests of favouritism from non-nuclear companies the government agreed to 'loan' £410 million to British Energy - raising it to £650 million shortly after.
Energy minister Brian Wilson had earlier told Parliament in 2002 that New Labour would provide the £200 million for the plant decommissioning.
Dale Vince, managing director of Ecotricity, a renewable energy company, said in 2002: "If we were given £410 million instead of British Energy, we could have built enough onshore wind energy to power 10 percent of the country's electricity needs".
Although bailed out of bankruptcy, Blair's government soon gave another handout to British Energy of £184 million in March 2005 for "spent fuel liabilities".
However, the compelling and logical arguments used by anti-nuclear and green campaigners are not enough to change government policy.
Under capitalism, vested interests - not least the nuclear industry's ties with the military - will ensure that the dangerous, and uneconomic pursuit of nuclear energy continues. Only under a socialist society, with a democratically organised plan of production, can we implement an alternative, effective and safe energy policy.
In this issue
Environment and socialism
Socialist Party workplace news
Socialist Party campaigns
Socialist Party review
Socialist Party youth and students
Environment: Nuclear power
International socialist news and analysis