Our constitution, July 2012: Environmental rights

1. Enhanced constitutional rights (d) Environmental rights (eg prohibition of nuclear power)

It is customary for capitalism to regard the environment as an infinitely renewable resourse. The dangers of this custom have been made repeatedly clear, but the custom still continues: whether hunting sperm whales to near extinction or logging forests or pumping oil.

Left unchecked, climate change will accelerate. The use of fossil fuels, a growing demand for energy and increased deforestation will escalate emissions of carbon dioxide to potentially irreversible levels. Uncertainties in the scientific understanding of global warming do not warrant a ‘wait and see’ attitude and there is much that we can do now that makes both environmental and economic sense. (Scottish Environment Protection Agency)

It’s an idea so far only in utopias where the environment – our air, water, earth, woods, animals, insects, fishes – have government representatives who speak for them. Kim Stanley Robinson’s environmental courts, Marge Piercy’s “Earth Speakers”: the idea is not new, even if (as far as I know) it’s not been tried in practice. (The Tory “minister for the environment”? Ragwort Richard? Don’t be silly.)

We have heard the rationales offered by the nuclear superpowers. We know who speaks for the nations. But who speaks for the human species? Who speaks for Earth? Carl Sagan, Cosmos, 1980

But the idea that the environment has its own rights would at least avoid the situation we see in the current UK government:

More than 100 Tory MPs have written to the Prime Minister demanding big cuts in wind-power subsidies and environmental groups fear Mr Osborne has diluted the commitment to green issues that Mr Cameron displayed as Leader of the Opposition before the 2010 election. Ruth Davis, Greenpeace’s chief policy adviser, said yesterday: “The Chancellor is running an alternative energy policy out of the Treasury. There are now two totally parallel and incompatible energy strategies being pursued. If the Lib Dems cave in to Osborne and his very public blackmail it will be a massive blow to their credibility, as they established their credentials on the basis of their green concern.”

It’s been reported that since May 2010, Ministers at the Treasury have held 119 meetings with representatives from energy-intensive sectors compared with 17 meetings with either green campaign groups or clean energy lobbyists: some corporations have had high levels of access including several close face-to-face meetings. “Ministers have met with Shell on 12 separate occasions, including at least three one-on-one lunches and dinners.

For anyone interested in alternative sources of energy not oil or coal, not involving adding more CO2 to the atmosphere, nuclear power must be a question. (Charles Stross describes a visit he paid to Torness nuclear power station: worth reading for the enthusiastic praise of the superb engineering involved.) Worth reading, too, in more detail about both the bad nuclear power disasters of recent memory (Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi): also worth looking at this list of nuclear power accidents since 1952 and considering how it compares to deaths caused by climate change or even to deaths in mining accidents.

There are two key problems with nuclear power as a source of energy, and neither of them are directly environmental.

(1) Nuclear power stations cost a lot of money to build safely, have a limited lifespan, and must be safely decommissioned at the end of the lifespan. Allowing a private company to build or decommission nuclear power stations, running the risk that they would cut safety corners for profit, or build a power station somewhere that might not be safe for the decommissioned lifetime of the plant, is a risk that we simply cannot afford to take.

(Allowing private companies to run nuclear power stations, taking the profits of electricity generation while not bearing the responsibility or the costs of building and decommissioning, would be less risky but so blatantly spivvish it would take a Tory government not expecting to win the next election to think of it. Or Tony Blair about to leave office. If you can see a difference. Or having China National Nuclear Power Corporation build nuclear power stations in the UK, which apparently is the latest in coalition thinking.)

Nuclear power stations must be built and decommissioned as a public utility, funded by taxpayers, run by and for the public interest. Otherwise we’re not safe.

(2) Nuclear power stations cost a lot of money. If they are commissioned, built, and decommissioned with public funds, the temptation for any government is to use nuclear reactors to create weapon-grade plutonium. And then we’re really not safe.

It’s a dilemma. We can’t trust anything but a government to run nuclear power stations – but if governments run nuclear power stations, can we risk their succumbing to the temptation of nuclear weapons?

Unless the government have formally rejected nuclear weapons and the Constitution has banned nuclear weapons.

The risks of nuclear power are real. (Though see XKCD’s radiation chart.)

After Fukushima, nuclear power has become a bogeyman – but we shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand, writes physicist David Robert Grimes:

Nuclear energy on the other hand releases negligible amounts of greenhouse gas and boasts about 83,300 times more energy than coal per kilo. While fears about radioactivity are often cited, what is ignored is that the fly ash of a coal plant is more than 100 times more radioactive than the outputs of a nuclear plant. In terms of human health, coal is the absolute worst offender – the WHO estimate solid fuel kills over 1.3 million a year. Nuclear energy very rarely kills anyone, and when it does it tends to relate to uranium mining accidents rather than radiation. CO2 levels are set to rise dramatically because of this, giving a certain dark irony to the celebrations of the obstinately environmentally conscious.

But it is possible to make a credible case for using nuclear power, like using the oil, as a transitional source of energy until we can do better with renewable energy.

What if SEPA were a Constitutionally-mandated organisation, with specific powers to protect the environment? What if when a greedy American billionaire walks in and uses his clout to get his golf course, SEPA had the power to turn him back until he picks somewhere other than the Menie sand dunes?

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) is Scotland’s environmental regulator. Our main role is to protect and improve the environment. We do this by being an excellent environmental regulator, helping business and industry to understand their environmental responsibilities, enabling customers to comply with legislation and good practice and to realise the many economic benefits of good environmental practice. We protect communities by regulating activities that can cause harmful pollution and by monitoring the quality of Scotland’s air, land and water. The regulations we implement also cover the keeping and use, and the accumulation and disposal, of radioactive substances.

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