The Doomsday Machine: The High Price of Nuclear Energy, the World's Most Dangerous Fuel

July 5, 2012

Principles, priorities, practicalities: fine things all, but easier to discuss separately than together. Most of us want to protect the environment, for example. But which bits, and how best to do it? For a while, it looked like the growing sense that climate change should prompt urgent action was about to trigger a resurgence of the widely unloved technology of nuclear electricity generation.

One-time anti-nuke campaigners including Stewart Brand, George Monbiot and Mark Lynas took another look at nuclear reactors and concluded that coal-fired power stations do more harm, and in any case nukes are not that hazardous. (Full disclosure: I'm with them. I'd add that my main motive for youthful anti-nuke activism was a conviction that nuclear stations come with a sinister and shadowy security state as a non-optional extra. We have that now anyway, so that nuclear overhead is already paid for.)

But then practicality, along with politics and public opinion, pops up and spoils the new nuclear party. After the Fukushima disaster in 2011, most countries are backing away from nuclear power as fast as possible. Japan has shut down all its operating reactors, at least for now, and maybe for ever. Germany has renounced future nuclear power generation. France's new president may well follow suit.

The UK, however, is still officially gung-ho for a new clutch of nuclear power stations: Charles Hendry, minister of state at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, recently told an industry audience that the government was committed to making the UK "the number one destination to invest in new nuclear". The following day came news that preliminary earthworks on the most likely site, Hinkley Point in Somerset, have been put back for a year. Two new £7 billion reactors planned for the site might come on stream by 2020. But don't bet on it.

All in all, it looks as if additional nuclear power stations' contribution to mitigating climate change, or to anything else, will be minimal in my lifetime. The authors of this curious little book have noticed this, but embarked on writing it, one assumes, before the Fukushima meltdown. Their effort is a response to Brand et al, and rehearses arguments against nuclear power that will be familiar to anyone who followed the debates of the 1970s and 1980s. Secrecy, creative accounting, problems of waste disposal and day-to-day operational risks all feature.

Their strongest suit is energy economics and supply data. Overall, the arguments here would give anyone pause who was inclined to think that nuclear power was ever going to be cheap, or perhaps even affordable at all.

That is the only part of the book that carries any conviction, though. The early sections are replete with silly mistakes - historical and scientific - that undermine confidence in the treatment of subjects where they at least appear more at home. (My favourite: they call out the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for suggesting that "the Himalayas will melt" by 2035. The IPCC's error related to glaciers, not mountains.) The political analysis, which comes with a shrill polemical edge, turns on conspiratorial and presumably malign "elites" who make all decisions. And the authors appear to believe that there is no evidence that human-made carbon-dioxide emissions affect global temperature, and that energy conservation is an easy way to reduce consumption if we need to.

Add to this poor organisation, and a repetitiveness that is wearisome even at this length, and it is a little hard to see any virtue in this text.

When people ask, "Why bother to have publishers any more?", the best answer in the internet age is that their editorial care may serve quality control. This message has clearly eluded Palgrave Macmillan in this case. The attention to detail this book has enjoyed is well represented by the fact that even the subtitle needs editing.

The Doomsday Machine: The High Price of Nuclear Energy, the World's Most Dangerous Fuel

By Martin Cohen and Andrew McKillop. Palgrave Macmillan, 256pp, £16.99. ISBN 9780230338340. Published 26 April 2012

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