The other day, we ran a bit noting that the British government issued a report that cleared the way for new nuclear build in the United Kingdom. I used it to make a larger point, but it is rather a point in itself. For one thing, it has led to a very substantial change of heart for the Liberal Democratic Energy Minister Chris Huhne.
In the most pro-nuclear speech by a Cabinet minister for years, Mr. Huhne, who campaigned against nuclear power before taking office, told the Royal Society: ‘Nuclear energy has risks, but we face the greater risk of accelerating climate change if we do not embark on another generation of nuclear power. Time is running out. Nuclear can be a vital and affordable means of providing low-carbon electricity.”
The British government is currently a coalition between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. The latter, which doesn’t quite line up with the American Democratic party (it’s a little further to the left by U.S. standards), but close enough, is very much against nuclear energy.
How much against? This much:
“Nuclear power has always required huge amounts of public money and David Cameron’s signal that the Tories are ready to turn on the taps of taxpayer support risks billions that we simply can’t afford.
“Nuclear energy is not clean energy. A new generation of nuclear power stations would leave us with a legacy of deadly radioactive waste that will take hundreds of years and billions of pounds to clean up.”
This is Liberal Democrat Shadow Energy and Climate Change Secretary Simon Hughes in 2010, before the Liberal Democrats took some of the levers of power.
Does this make Huhne and Liberal Democrats hypocrites? Well, I think it has more to do with the nature of coalition government than any particular party position, but really, that decision will be left up to British voters.
In the meantime, Huhne is walking a notably frayed tightrope:
The climate change secretary, Chris Huhne, has described the UK's nuclear policy as the "most expensive failure of postwar British policy-making" in a "crowded and highly-contested field."
Huhne set out five tests for how power plants would be adopted in a cautious new regime, but is under pressure from his party to ensure any new-builds do not receive public subsidy – something the coalition has pledged it will not allow. [I guess this accounts for one of Hughes’ issues.]
Speaking at the Royal Society on Thursday, Huhne said: "If we are to retain public support for nuclear as a key part of our future energy mix then we have to show that we have learned the lessons from our past mistakes."
This isn’t boilerplate – these are important things to say – and perhaps they allow Huhne to save face a bit. Or maybe not:
However, in the past few weeks Huhne's own party has hardened its position on new nuclear power, putting pressure on the climate change secretary to begin a fresh battle with the Treasury.
I suspect it hasn’t hardened it in warm hearted ways.
Regardless, even if we feel a little uncomfortable with the position Huhne has been cast into, we’ll take it. Because he’s right: “Nuclear can be a vital and affordable means of providing low-carbon electricity.” Not “can be,” is. Otherwise, to quote the Thunderbirds, nuclear energy is go in Britain.
Chris Huhne. I suspect he carries a furrowed brow with him much of the time.