Of the many ways in which the Green credentials of Liberal Democrat voters have been caricatured in the past, one of the most enduring must be the image of the rainbow- emblazoned sticker in the rear windscreen (of a Citroen 2CV, naturally) proclaiming: “Nuclear Power – No Thanks”. Opposition to nuclear power has been such a touchstone of the Green movement for so long that any questioning of this stance is treated as nothing short of heretical by many Greens. Yet, at their annual conference in Glasgow, the Lib Dems have not merely questioned the policy of opposition to new nuclear power generation, they have ditched it altogether.
Although the debate over the details of the Party’s acceptance of new nuclear and the precise definition of terms such as ‘no public subsidy’ will rumble on, there is no doubt that a Rubicon has been crossed.
There have been howls of outrage from environmentalists, with Craig Bennett, policy director at Friends of the Earth, saying: “The change punches a huge hole in the Liberal Democrats’ fast-sinking green credibility.” Greenpeace have been equally savage: Dr Doug Parr their chief scientist added: “The vote shows how far the Liberal Democrats have slid from their previously principled position on energy and climate.”
There are, however, some very respected Green thinkers who have come around to the pro-nuclear way of thinking and have also been pilloried by their fellow travellers for daring to question the orthodoxy of the anti-nuclear stance.
As far back as 2004, James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia theory and elder statesman of the environmental movement, took his fellow environmentalists to task for their continued opposition to nuclear energy even in the face of the far more immediate and potentially deadly threat posed by climate change. Writing in The Independent, he said: “I find it sad and ironic that the UK, which leads the world in the quality of its Earth and climate scientists, rejects their warnings and advice, and prefers to listen to the Greens. But I am a Green and I entreat my friends in the movement to drop their wrongheaded objection to nuclear energy.” This view was reflected in his 2006 Book The Revenge of Gaia in which he expanded on the view that the threats posed by nuclear power and the disposal of nuclear waste are as nothing compared to the global threat posed by rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
In March 2012, in an open letter to the Prime Minister that publicly disagreed with an earlier letter signed by four former Directors of Friends of the Earth urging him to abandon plans to increase nuclear power generating capacity, George Monbiot, Stephen Tindale, Fred Pearce, Michael Hanlon and Mark Lynas asserted: “Nuclear remains the only viable large-scale source of low-carbon baseload power available to energy consumers in the UK today. Whilst we enthusiastically support research into new technologies, the deployment of renewables, demand-management and efficiency, these combined cannot, without the help of atomic energy, power a modern energy-hungry economy at the same time as reducing carbon emissions.”
What both these views have in common is an acceptance that we have waited too long to tackle climate change through renewable technologies alone and, due to a failure to invest in research and development in both renewables and methods of mitigating the impact of burning fossil fuels such as Carbon Capture and Storage, we have run out of alternatives to the nuclear option.
So, instead of criticising the Liberal Democrats for abandoning their Green principles, we should be applauding their willingness to take a realistic approach to meeting the energy needs of the 21st century whilst taking seriously the need to drastically reduce the carbon footprint of energy generation. Taking the nuclear path is an admission of failure but, having failed to address the issue of climate change by other means, it does at least buy us the time to seriously invest in the development of alternative technologies. If the Government will commit to the next generation of nuclear power stations being the last and that, by the time they reach the end of their productive lives, they will have been made redundant by the great strides that have been made in improving the efficiency of renewable energy technologies, then this change of heart will have paid off. If, on the other hand, the commissioning of new nuclear is used as an excuse to stop thinking about the problem then the Lib Dems will deserve all the opprobrium, and more, being heaped upon them by the likes of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.