Is nuclear power, once again, the way ahead? In doing some reading on energy questions, I concluded that it might be - and then started finding the same view popping up in a lot of places.
A dog-eared 2003 North and South I picked up while on the cycle at the gym had an unusually interesting story on the nuclear power station planned for New Zealand in the 1970s. The history and abandonment of these plans is also discussed in a recent article in the Salient, which makes a cogent case for nuclear power to again be considered for New Zealand. In Britain, pre-election debate stimulated considerable discussion of energy issues, and the New Statesman recently claimed to have uncovered a pro-nuclear industry conspiracy.
Whether on a world or local scale, there's a straightforward reason why nuclear power might be gradually shedding its dire image. As a sober majority start acknowledging the necessity of developing renewable energy sources, nuclear is the only (semi-) renewable that might plausibly provide a significant proportion of our energy in the near future.
For doubters, it's worth clarifying the rationale for pursuing renewable energy. On the one hand, there's the much-polemicized issue of global warming. There are some reasonable doubts about the scale or impact of global warming, and the image of the Earth as a potential fireball dragging a carbon-fulled vapor trail through space is a stupid exaggeration. But the scientific consensus (which we laypeople tend to respect on most other matters) is that the planet is probably warming up, this probably has something to do with carbon dioxide emissions, and this is probably going to create more harm than benefit in the longer term. Therefore, it makes sense to look for alternatives to fossil fuels.
On the other hand, fossil fuels themselves are eventually going to get scarcer. Oil, which produces 40% of the world's energy, may reach peak production as early as next year. It will keep going for a while yet, but will gradually get more expensive, especially as demand continues to increase. This actually alarms me more than global warming, as it's not clear what alternative source of fuel there is for the ships, planes and trucks on which our economies depend. But the least we can do is try and leave the oil for these and other important purposes like plastics and pharmaceuticals, while getting our industrial and household energy elsewhere.
Some environmentalists claim that the solution is a combination of greater energy efficiency plus "green" energy sources such as sun, wind and wave power. All of these are important, but won't do the trick alone. Energy efficiencies might slow the increase in energy use, but in a growing economy (to which I'll return later) won't stop it. Of the green technologies, the most well developed - wind power - is already running into limitations. Both in Britain and New Zealand, even wind power proponents estimate that it could produce a maximum of 10-20% of national electricity supply.
And in both countries schemes to expand wind energy have faced opposition. In rural Auckland and Britain's Lake District, planned windmill farms have been blocked by locals as "blots on the landscape".
I digress here for a moment. The opposition to windmills on aesthetic grounds is partly a failure of imagination; people just don't like what they're not used to. I'm not saying they should cover the entire countryside, but they are sleek, futuristic machines which can be attractive in some settings. I remember being excited to see the windmill farms near Palm Springs in California when I passed through there a few years back; they looked romantically space-age against the desert. Closer to home, most people like the single wind turbine up near where I used to live on Brooklyn Hill in Wellington.
How much uglier are power pylons, which people usually don't even notice? Or regular telegraph-style poles? Or roads, which nowadays people mostly view as part of the natural landscape. Driving through New Zealand's North Island, for me the ugliest technology of all is the endless, dreary, rolling-country sheep and cattle farm, with its fences and deforested hills. But this supports our cloven-hoofed animals, who pay all our bills, so must be tolerated (take a look at these pictures; do the windmills enhance or detract from the landscape?) .
Returning to the point, wind power is limited at present. To provide enough power for a country like Britain, you would have to cover most of its landmass in windmills. Solar is worse; while it will be great to promote the integration of solar panels into new houses (where are the tax breaks, Michael Cullen?), whole deserts worth of panels would be needed to produce major amounts of electricity. And while I fondly imagine the days when fleets of offshore turbines combine wind and wave power to bring light to our cities, by the time that technology really gets going we'll all be buzzing around at skyscraper height in pod-cars like Anakin Skywalker.
Some environmentalists, like the Guardian's George Monbiot, purse their lips and say that we just have to use less energy. We can't expect to keep on with growing populations and growing economies, because Mother Earth has got a finite store of resources to give us, and is already under too much stress.
This simplistic view effectively thumbs its nose at the entire developing world. Huge chunks of the world's population continue to live in poverty - the single biggest challenge facing the world today. Everyone has the right to a decent standard of living. History suggests the only thing that will achieve this is development, meaning economic growth.
And developing-country economies won't grow in isolation. In addition to investment and development aid, they need freer and fairer trade - in other words, for other countries to buy their stuff. It would be nice to imagine we could just "share out" the world's wealth a bit better, but there's no known mechanism for doing this directly. Thoroughgoing socialism hasn't worked within societies; there's even less chance it could work on a global scale.
So a globalised world economy which continues to grow is a necessary prerequisite for improving people's lives. We are going to have to generate and use more energy. Which is where nuclear power comes in. Aside from oil and gas, it's the only currently available way of generating large amounts of energy in a relatively efficient way. There are also reasons to think that the risks and side effects aren't as bad as are sometimes made out. I defer to the Salient article to make the technical case, but even Monbiot is now admitting that it may not be as bad as all that.
It's likely to be difficult to advance this debate in New Zealand. We'll see a lot of emotive reaction and a reluctance to consider the issue with an open mind. People see "nuclear-free New Zealand" as a badge of identity. Though surely, the refusal to accept American warships in the 80s was more a stroppy assertion of foreign policy independence than a reasoned rejection of nuclear technology. Wasn't it?
Either way, we'll have to face up to the questions sooner or later, as our demand for energy continues to increase. We've run out of rivers to dam, our natural gas is dwindling, and wind will only go so far. For many people, the key ibjection to nuclear power is the possibility of a catastrophic accident which produces toxic pollution and harms the environment. It's worth remembering that our other option is burning lots of coal - which definitely will produce toxic pollution.