Nicolas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown are increasingly unpopular in their own countries. Sarkozy's party - the opaquely titled Union for a Popular Movement - has just been soundly beaten in municipal elections across the length and breadth of France, while in the opinion polls New Labour, having backed out of a general election last autumn, is now up to 13% adrift of the Tories. Brown and Sarkozy are not yet discredited politicians, but like so many of the banks in their respective countries, their credit ratings have been severely downgraded. This has not stopped them bringing forward a joint proposal with far-reaching and potentially dangerous consequences.
According to the Guardian they are instituting Anglo-French collaboration on a new generation of nuclear technology which will be sold to the world - especially the developing world. The project builds on undoubted French nuclear engineering expertise, with the French grid dependent on nuclear power for 78% of its supply. With its ageing nuclear park, the dismal record of toxic leaks at THORP and the utter technical and financial failure of the nearby Sellafield Mox facility, it is less clear what the UK brings to the proposal. Brown and Sarkozy's selling point, however, is that their scheme will make a major contribution to combating climate change.
But what is really driving the project? As the Guardian
delicately puts it, "there is a growing view within the energy industry
that nuclear power could be the next lucrative market", and there is no
doubt that in both countries the construction and engineering
industries are looking for massive government investment with
guaranteeed profits, at the same time as avoiding responsibility for
radioactive waste management and eventual decommissioning. Last
September this blog reported the concerns of the Royal Society about
the huge accumulation of plutonium stockpiled at Sellafield with no
effective plan for its long term disposal. This proposal would add enormously to the problem, dispersing stockpiles worldwide and
inevitably to environments less secure than Cumbria or Normandy.
of course the timescale makes no sense. Forget the carbon-emission
implications of the millions of tons of concrete the scheme
presupposes, the fact is that with development and construction cycles
it would take 20-25 years to have any significant impact on power
generation. By that time in all probability the die of runaway climate
change will have been cast, one way or the other.
There is no reason why politicians in trouble should not make bold proposals, particularly when they involve international collaboration on so fundamental an issue as climate change. What is questionable is when a deal is stitched together at the apparent behest of powerful financial interests involving great dangers and which - even at the technical level - cannot possibly be delivered in time to impact significantly on the problem it purports to address. Surely it should be obvious by now that major projects with global consequences cannot be undertaken without open public debate based on full publication of the science and ecological background.