28 January 2006

What sort of energy policy would Bin Laden like?

By Rupert Read

So, the government has this week launched its long-awaited energy review. I have not had the chance yet to read all 77 pages of the 'consultation' document, but I have already noticed one interesting thing: nowhere in the document is there any mention whatsoever of terrorism.

Why might that be? Here are the only three theories I can think of, to explain the omission:
  1. There is no threat to nuclear installations in Britain from terrorism.
  2. There is a serious threat, but it would compromise our security to discuss it.
  3. There is a serious threat, and, if it were discussed, people might well get so scared that even pro-nuclear people would turn against nuclear power.
Theory (1) is obviously false: only last month, a group of would-be terrorists were intercepted at an Australian nuclear reactor, while plotting an attack on it. Former leaders from the most populous states in Australia and the US - former New South Wales premier Bob Carr and two-term governor of California Pete Wilson - have both publicly warned, during this past week, of mounting evidence of a potential nuclear strike on a Western country. "The nightmare scenario is a real one - the threat is very real," said Mr Wilson. "There is no question al-Qa'ida has been trying to obtain fissile material for a number of years." (Note that, if a plane were flown into a nuclear reactor, the terrorists wouldn't have even needed to have got hold of any nuclear material, in order to unleash a truly unprecedented catastrophe.)

Theory (2) might have a few grains of truth in it: it would be inappropriate to discuss in public detailed plans for protection of nuclear plants against potential attack. But it is quite obviously appropriate, for anyone who cares about their own survival, to discuss whether or not we as a people want to sign up to a technology that exposes us to serious risk of suffering the fallout from an 'incident' that could potentially be lethal on a scale far outstripping that of the al-Qa’ida attack on New York, and even of the 'coalition' attack on Iraq.

And so we are left with theory (3). And this theory seems to me alarmingly plausible, as an explanation for the astounding omission of any mention of terrorism, from the energy review document. For let us ask this question: if someone bent on terrorising Britain could write the government's energy policy, what would it say?

"Our country will in future rely on wind, wave, biomass and solar power”?
"We will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear by over 50% within 2 decades through implementing best practice energy-efficiency”?
"We will build a new generation of nuclear reactors spread around Britain”…?

Would a terrorist prefer us to depend on a few centralised nuclear power stations, or on millions of micro-generation systems for individual homes or communities, when it comes to security of a network?

And which would the terrorists stipulate when it came to potential targets for explosions? Nuclear waste stockpiles and nuclear power stations? Or factories making wind turbines and warehouses full of insulation materials?

Answers on a post-card please to Energy Review, Whitehall, London, UK, SW1…

The government tells us it wants to achieve 'energy security'. Such security should be treated as a two stage process:
  1. Security of electricity supply - avoiding political instability, and achieving diversity of supply. This counts in favour of a 'mixed basket' of renewables, from indigenous sources. It counts against relying on resources – such as oil, gas, and uranium – which come mostly from countries which are politically insecure!
  2. Forestalling any terrorist threat to energy generation – here, nuclear is much more vulnerable and deadly than fossil fuels such as oil and gas, which in turn are much more vulnerable and deadly than renewables (Don’t forget how easily a 'minor' disaster occurred at Buncefield oil depot).
    • Whichever way you cut the pie, it is reduction in demand for energy, implementation of energy-efficiency measures, and investment in renewables - and not reliance on fossil and fissile fuels from abroad - which offers the sure path toward energy security.

      A very good reason, then, to favour a long-term truly secure energy supply, is that, in these uncertain times, it will be least-attractive as a terrorist target. You can't really imagine terrorists bothering to fly a plane into a wind-farm or a tidal barrage. Let alone into mini-wind-turbines and solar panels on people's houses, or into an energy efficiency advice centre… It is these small-scale waves of the future that will deliver us genuine energy security.

      Many many thanks to Chris Rose for inspiration in writing this column.