Energy crisis suggests need for rethink

With the crisis in the Middle East and nuclear power now set to become politically unacceptable, rational governments across the world must be rethinking their energy policy. They could do worse than start with transport.

It is amazing how governments will never bite the bullet on this one. As petrol prices are soaring, rather than admitting that this is inevitable and people simply have to readjust to high fuel and energy prices, watch instead for motorist-friendly measures in the budget which, ultimately will be self-defeating.  On the one hand ministers say this is a green government,while at the same time advocating measures which are not only far from being green, but actually people to travel more.

Of course shifting people onto environmentally more friendly modes has a role too. But here the quick gains can be made in urban transport where cars are completely out of place, and cause more problems than they solve. Yet, while the government ploughs on with developing plans for HS2, it is cutting back massively on subsidies for buses and while, to be fair, it has supported some tram schemes, Britain’s efforts in that regard are paltry compared to those of many European countries.The policy is about us consistent as the average performance of the referees at QPR!

  • JG

    It is so difficult for ordinary people to seperate fact from fiction. Oil and information about oil are clearly weapons in the great and very serious game being played by the major powers of the world.
    I remember when the oil was supposed to start running in the late 70s! We have stories about peak oil and then we have stories of staggering reserves within the US alone, the Russians don’t even believe crude oil is a fossil fuel! Their abiotic oil theory has enabled them to build up the world’s biggest oil industry so what is the truth? I certainly don’t know and treat all information from whatever source with suspicion.
    As for Tram schemes in the UK please Christian investigate the Edinburgh Tram scheme, it is an amazing scandal of incompetence even by UK standards. The London equivalent would be say £4 billion spent on Crossrail and then the project cancelled with empty tunnels under the streets. That on a mere £500 million scale is what faces Edinburgh with the very real possibility that the entire scheme will be abandoned or at best completed to a very truncated state that will be almost whimsically uneconomic!

  • Peter

    “watch instead for motorist-friendly measures”

    Very true. But governments have always been muddled headed about this.

    Just think back a couple of years to the last Labour government. It told us that global warming was a serious problem yet:

    1) It wasted millions on a scheme to destroy perfectly good cars and replace them with new ones. How did that benefit the environment?
    2) It did nothing to expand the English rail network, even while all sorts of lines were being reopened in Scotland and Wales.

    Sadly I have come to the view that politicians are just driven by lust for power and greed rather than any higher motives.

  • Peter

    And don’t forget Leeds either.

    Here, after provisional approval in 2001, the council was suckered into spending £30m on all sorts of preparatory works and remodelling road junctions etc, only to find its scheme cancelled in 2005 – with little prospect of any revival.

    This was all part of Labour’s scheme to increase light rail use by 50%. Which has now been quietly forgotten.

  • Windsorian

    As if a earthquake followed by a tsunami was not enough, I see that Britain’s leading prophet of Doom & Gloom is claiming that “nuclear power is now set to become politically unacceptable”. Well may be, perhaps.

    Or perhaps the Japanese are managing rather well with the unforeseen effects of these natural disasters on their 60 year old nuclear technology.

    Yes, there is undoubtedly a good case for reviewing the status of existing nuclear power stations, and specifically with extending the life of the earliest designs. Also of looking again at the latest designs to ensure they are adequate to contain all know risks. But is it really necessary to throw the baby out with the bath water ??

    Meanwhile over at the StopHS2 campaign “Lizzy” on 11th March compared the Japanese natural disaster with the effect of HS2 over the last year. Whilst today she claims travel for pleasure is a luxury and wants transport rationing like there was food rationing during WW2. Apparently she loves is the idea of everyone having a travel quota for the year, and if exceeded you should pay the price in carbon off setting.

  • Arthur

    People will always want cars. It’s the propulsion system that needs to change. In light of the latest oil scare perhaps instead of building new railways some of that money would be better spent in grants and incentives to develop the technology and infrastructure for the future. Britain needs to be “the best” at something again & the way to do this is to develop world beating technologies using British engineering & scientific prowess.

  • Sean Baggaley

    Clearly you’ve bought into the media hysteria over the Japanese nuclear power stations. Perhaps you should talk to people who actually have a clue about what’s going on over there: Those decades-old Japanese power stations have done pretty damned well considering they were only designed for earthquakes a mere *fifth* of the size of the one that hit them, let alone the tsunamis.

    (And the number of deaths involved is tiny—only one worker is known to have died, but that was caused by the seismic activity itself, not by radiation. How many were affected by the heavy pollution caused by the Buncefield explosions?)

    The reported fires—even the explosions—were *expected*. They’re just the equivalent of safety valves going off. They even announced the possibility in advance: they’re relying on backup systems for backup systems—each station has *two* redundant diesel generators, as well as electrical systems for pumping demineralised water into the cores, but the damage was so great, they’ve had to resort to just throwing sea water into the cores instead. These cores were *already* cooling; the automated shutdown processes *worked*, dammit!

    However, cooling down the core takes *time*. If just one of the diesel generators had survived the damage, there would have been no problems at all. As it is, they’ve had to resort to “Plan E” and use a less satisfactory cooling liquid, one of the side-effects of which is to produce vast quantities of oxygen and hydrogen—both highly flammable gases. Hence the fires and explosions, which are merely ripping off a few roofs, while the containment units remain *intact*.

    There *will* be some radiation in the immediate vicinity, but the vast majority of this is very short half-life material which decays in seconds, and the remaining technicians are already protected as a matter of course. By the time that steam reaches the nearest (intact?) habitation, it really *is* just harmless steam. It looks a hell of a lot worse than it is: this isn’t Chernobyl. Chernobyl’s reactors didn’t even *have* containment units and were an inherently unsafe design. Science has moved on a tad since then, and even since these Japanese designs were first drawn up.

    Perhaps you’d like to have a chat with the French, who’ve been running a lot of nuclear power stations without any ill effects. The UK isn’t in the Pacific “Ring of Fire” region, so the likelihood of similar earthquakes hitting it are pretty damned close to zero.

    The Japanese preference for nuclear-generated electricity has a lot of reasons behind it, not least the high population density, massive demand for energy, and the lack of suitable sites for alternatives such as high-pollution fossil-fuelled power stations, wind turbines or solar power plants. And if you think Chernobyl was bad, take a look at what happened to the Vajont (Italy) and Banqiao (China) dam death tolls.

    Besides, if every air crash or train crash was viewed as the death knell for that technology, you’d have been out of a job years ago.

    Harrumph, sir! Harrumph, I say!

  • Christian

    Actually Sean, to a large extent I agree with you. Nuclear has been relatively safe and should not abandoned without proper thought. However, my point is that the perception of the danger, as transmitted by the media, will make it nigh on impossible for any democratic government to go ahead with a big nuclear programme. .
    Secondly, the PR around the incident has been very poor. They keep on making reassuring noises, and then every time it gets slightly worse and there is another incident. Moreover, I am not impressed with your argument that the explosions are a necessary way of, as it were, letting off steam. That does suggest rather dodgy contingency planning, to say the least.
    I have not found the ‘reassuring’ experts very, well, reassuring. I am conscious, though, that I have gone on TV and radio numerous times after rail incidents making exactly the same type of points. Nevertheless, I would like to have heard a bit more objective thinking on the issue.

  • Windsorian

    For people interested in the UK assessment process of risk, a good document to start with is:-

    Since this was first produced 20 years ago, the UK fatalities from traffic accidents has halved from about 5,500 down to 2,200 per annum; a figure we accept (as being tolerable) in return for the freedom of being able to travel at will.

    However, it is worth considering that over the last 20 year period, nuclear power station design has also improved by leaps and bounds. Certainly what is being considered today is very different and far safer than the 60 year old technology employed at Fukushima, and any lessons learnt can still be built into the new UK designs.

  • Guest

    Typo “but actually people to travel more” missing encourage?

  • Pottshrigley

    What I find interesting is that the new build nuclear power stations have to be commercially funded from building to decommissioning however what happens if when all the money has been made and the power station is redundant and being decomisioned the power company concerned becomes insolvent due to escalating costs or unforseen circumstances? Judging by the past behaviour of our great & good private sector corporations I strongly suspect that some of these companies wont be around to clean up their mess in another fifty to sixty years hence and under such circumstances I can see them throwing the towel in just like the train companies do when its not going their way commercially and as usual it will be HM Government and the tax payer who will have no other choice than to step in.

    I think we will always have a uk nuclear industry as long as we have an independent nuclear deterent and the missiles require tritium gas which unlike the plutonium only has a relatively short life and there needs to be an active uk nuclear industry to manufacture it.

  • Anonymous

    Agree that constantly making tax concessions to the roads lobby is like everyone trying to run to the rear end of the Titanic putting off the moment when the ship is inevitably going to sink…..yet governments are still steered primarily by populist politics that will keep them in a job at the ballot box.

    I do wish the “experts” would make up their mind over whether Japan really is facing another Chernobyl or not. The French (who have more knowledge than most about nuclear power) seem to think so – yet there seems to be no shortage of British academics keen to get in front of a camera and say “don’t worry”.

  • Keith

    The problem is that at budget time people always compare our petrol prices with those “in other European countries”. But as those countries seem to have less car dependency than we do, can someone challenge these comparisons?

  • Paul Holt

    There are two threads here; there is the transport side begun by CW, and there is the electricity generation side begun by several commenters.

    Dealing purely with the first, the glee exhibited by CW over soaring petrol prices needs to be tempered by what this actually means.

    It is easy for metropolitan types to be pious about public transport, because they have it on their doorsteps. For the rest of us, whose rail line was taken away by Beeching, we get behind the wheel and drive because we’ve got to, and for our trouble are bled by motoring taxes. Motorists are not thanked for all the tax they pay, instead they are sneered at by metropolitan types who seem to think motorists drive around at eight o’clock each morning just to be annoying, in between being considered cash cows.

    As an exercise, list and add up all the motoring taxes endured by motorists in a typical year. Whatever the Budget contains, it will only ameliorate the massive recent increases.

  • Rhydgaled

    Wales isn’t much better. While they have reopened the Vale Of Glamorgan and Ebbw Vale lines they haven’t reversed Beeching’s cut on the Fishguard line dispite a petition. This cut would be reletivly easy to reverse, as there is still 1 train per day.

    Cutting fuel duty for private cars and HGVs is bad for the enviroment, but it might help bus operators. The dropping of a per plane tax on aviation on the other hand is totally un-excusable, as it doesn’t it leave frieght aviation almost totally tax free? If these green taxes had been raised electrification to Swansea could have been paid for, which would have avoided the need for diesel powered (bi-mode) trains which we would be stuck with for a least 30 years,

  • Fandroid

    I have seen an amazingly sensible comment in a rail mag recently on this issue. It accepted that with the current overcrowding on peak hour trains, no significant shift is going to happen from car to rail, even if fuel costs skyrocketed. Cheap fuel and lots of past road spending mean that many people live unsustainable lives, with their homes huge distances from their work. Folk who would have moved with the job in the past have just stayed put and got on the roads. It’s happened with rail too, with 100 mile commutes not unusual any more. Commercial decision making has gone the same way. Two local examples. I’m in the Reading postcode area, that town being about 17 miles away. The Reading postal sorting office closed recently, and all my mail, and all of Reading’s mail, does the trip down the M4 to Swindon (and back for local stuff!). Our local driving test centre closed too, and despite Basingstoke having a far bigger population than Newbury, that (Newbury) is where the centre is now, with loads of hopeful new drivers clogging up the A339 to get there and back. We need some planning ! Some countries take it seriously, with planned mixes of work and residential, plus the public transport infrastructure to suit the future (not expensively and inadequately retrofitted like we do here – (all in the the name of free market ‘economics’)).

  • RapidAssistant

    It can be a number of factors – another one is house price inflation of course; the banks kept on lending and lending which had the effect of boosting the economies of areas where there was work aplenty to absorb the rises in the cost of mortgages, but decimated those where there were little employment opportunities. London is an obvious example, although up here in north east Scotland we’ve seen the same effect where Aberdeen has a really buoyant economy thanks to North Sea oil, but a chronic engineering skills shortage due to a lack of people willing to move into the area (OK the cold might have something to do with it….), which has a lot to do with punitive house prices and rents. Result – people commute by car from places as far away as Dundee (65 miles) or even Perth (91 miles); and although being on a main line, there are only 2 trains an hour from the Central Belt – and those are puny 3 coach Turbostars which go nowhere near the industrial areas, where most of the work is….

    This highlights two problems – first of all we need to break the vicious self-feeding spiral of house prices dictating everything.. I am optimistic that maybe the credit crunch has brought some sanity back to society in this regard, and secondly there needs to be a fundamental rethink on where we locate businesses, shops and other amenities in such away that that they don’t rely so much on roads.

  • Paul Holt

    Both you (Fandroid) and RapidAssistant make good points here.   The problem is that times have changed.   You remember the tale about Norman Tebbit’s father getting on his bike and looking for work?   In Tebbit Senior’s day, the next factory was a bike ride away.   These days, the next factory might be fifty miles away.   Catching the train to that factory is not possible when the rail line has been taken away by Beeching.   So, we’re forced onto the roads, not because we want to, but because we have to.   Relocating (usually accompanied by a wave of the hand by those propounding it) is not so easy, as RapidAssistant points out.   I’ve asked CW what his vision is, coinciding with your planning point above, and am still waiting for his answer!