The release of radiation at the Fukushima power station in Japan once again raises questions about the wisdom of including nuclear power in the energy infrastructure. The defenders of nuclear power point out that modern stations are far safer than Fukushima. Its opponents point out that, no matter how safe a plant’s operations are, the problems of long-term storage have yet to be addressed.
However, power stations that use uranium will never be safe. Perfectly designed stations and a 100% secure system of waste storage will not change that. Uranium is an extremely dangerous substance – massively poisonous in itself, and the raw material for apocalyptic weaponry. Refining uranium ore and storing it in one place will always present a pose a threat to human security. And so it will always have to be guarded by the state from all manner of potential threats – from terrorists, from maniacs, from terrorist maniacs, and so on. In Britain the industry has its own police force, the Civil Nuclear Constabulary. With the qualified exceptions the City of London Police, ‘a bespoke police force’ for ‘the world’s leading business and financial centre’, according to its website, and British Transport Police, this is the only police force specifically tasked with protecting a business sector.
The need for state security institutions to protect the nuclear industry parallels the military-intelligence needs of the global oil and gas industry. In November 2010 NATO member states reaffirmed their commitment to the organization. Among the commitments they made was an undertaking ‘to develop the capacity to contribute to energy security, including protection of critical energy infrastructure and transit areas and lines, cooperation with partners, and consultations among Allies on the basis of strategic assessments and contingency planning’. [emphasis added] The oil and gas industry constitutes the critical energy infrastructure at present. It and its transit areas and lines are one of the core concerns of the Western military establishment. The need to maintain the flow of oil and gas legitimate the projection of force on a vast scale by the NATO powers and by America in particular. Renewable energy threatens the rationale of NATO’s interventionist stance in the world by making energy security a matter of making sure that children don’t muck about with solar panels.
The forms of energy generation adopted in the coming decades will have profound implications for the wider structure of political economy. If we embrace technologies like nuclear that lend themselves to concentrated ownership and control, and that require the security offered by central state, then we will recreate the political economy of oil and gas, in which a small number of owners, managers and state players tend to extract rents from the rest of ths population. And we will replace the security doctrines that govern the production of, and international trade in, fossil fuels with an expanded role for the security state in national energy infrastructures.
Those who worry about the lobbying power of the Koch family’s private companies or the vast program of reaction organized and funded by the Saudi monarchy should look closely at current debates about energy policy. The aim must be to ensure that the forms of energy production adopted to replace hydrocarbons do not leave power and control in the hands of a few private owners and the creepier elements of the national security administration. It is this consideration that leads one to view nuclear with considerable suspicion. Nuclear power needs strong and secretive central states.
If we are not careful semi-criminal rackets in the defense and intelligence nexus will continue to share the spoils of the energy sector with politicians who can be trusted to keep democratic ownership and control off the agenda. We will remain in a world of permanent emergency and, perhaps, low-level war as the institutions that justify their existence through their claims to keep us safe find ways to keep themselves busy and distract our attention from the alternative.
Forms of energy generation that can be funded and effectively overseen by medium-sized communities of users offer the best hope for an escape from the concentrations of power that we find in the current mix of oil, gas, coal and nuclear. While it would be pleasant to think that individuals and families could provide for their own energy needs, this is at present the politics of the hobby farm. A few rich individuals, George W. Bush in Crawford, David Cameron in Notting Hill, for example, can kit themselves out with windmills. But somewhat larger scale projects will be needed if we are to replace hydrocarbons completely.
I am not about to pronounce on the relative merits of wind, tidal, geothermal, and solar power. Nor do I want to detract attention from the need for greater energy efficiency. But I want to stress that the legislative environment and the framework of subsidies in which new investment in the energy infrastructure takes place should aim to create energy capacity that is owned and controlled by the citizens who pay for it and use it. New investment in energy technology offers us a chance to create small and medium sized plants that deliver very cheap energy and that can be managed by the people who use them. The political implications of an energy infrastructure that is subject to participatory control can hardly be exaggerated.
The military-intelligence functions of Western states could be scaled back. Central states would become more accountable to their citizens as their need for secrecy declined. The real costs of energy would fall as it became a public good as well as a privately traded commodity. We could ensure that no one dies of cold, for example, and we could end the ruinously expensive and uncompetitive cartels that currently dominate the industry in much of the English-speaking world.
Those who love the state and the exercise of secret power understand this. Those who currently profit from control of fossil fuels understand this. How can the public as a whole be made to grasp the central importance of decisions about energy policy that are being made now, often far from the glare of publicity?
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