Since 1980, the UK’s power mix regarding nuclear has remained basically unchanged, accounting for around 10%. This is due to policy decisions to not commission new nuclear plants. Our last new plant was commissioned in 1987. France on the other hand, with their characteristic flaneur, paid little heed to the public sentiment and doubled down on Nuclear. About 40% of their energy over the last 30 years has come from nuclear.
Let’s do some fag-packet maths between these two policies.
The UK currently consumes 1,651 TWh
of energy per year. This has remained fairly unchanged since 1980. This may seem counterintuitive, as the population has increased by 10 million and we have access to far more ‘stuff’ now, but it’s just because all our manufacturing has been outsourced to China.
Let’s assume a 1:1 relationship between oil and nuclear, for every unit of nuclear produced, oil falls by 1. This is the general trend in France.
10% Nuclear in UK v 40% nuclear in France is a 30% / year difference in oil v nuclear energy.
Overall delta in TWh = 30% * 1650TWh * 40 years = 19,800TWh produced from oil rather than nuclear
Delta in KTWh deaths from oil v nuclear = 36,600–90 = 36,510 extra death per 1000TWh
Overall deaths from choosing oil over nuclear in the UK = 36,510 * 19.8 = 723,000 extra deaths. Three-quarters of a million deaths. The total number of reported deaths from covid in the UK is 210,000.
I hope you understand the magnitude of this impact. The choice by the UK government to phase out nuclear is equivalent to 3 Coronvirus epidemics. No one is talking about this, why? Because these deaths aren’t in your face, they aren’t obvious. These deaths are the result of small increases in cancer chances due to harmful particulates in the environment, or from the deaths of workers in countries where our oil is extracted. We don’t see them, so our brains assume they don’t exist.
And it’s not just this direct cost to lives. Our attitude to energy policy has also been a monumental fuck up from a security point of view. Across Europe, this winter thousands will die due to increased fuel costs, due to Russia turning off the taps. If we’d taken a balanced approach to energy security, prioritising nuclear delivered on a nation-state level, the situation wouldn’t be anywhere near this bad.
Not utilising nuclear has costs hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide. Millions more if we factor in the inevitable upcoming climate crisis. It may seem evil we’ve chosen this path, but it’s not, it’s just a quirk of the irrationality of our human minds.
What Can We Do?
Before diving into any recommendation, I have to preface that I am a complete amateur. I write for my own clarity, and it just happens that some people find what I write interesting. Guiding society to a path where individuals and governments see the world, and enact policy, that favours longtermism, and a more holistic approach to address the upsides and downsides of that which has not yet occurred is incredibly complex. People far smarter than I have worked on this problem.
Having said that here are a few observations
We should take more risks as a society, especially around technology
As a society, we are generally quite risk-averse when adopting new technologies. There’s no better example of this than Nuclear Power. It was a technology that could have vastly improved our current world. We didn’t need to completely stop commissioning new plants, we could have taken a much more measured approach, not letting the technology while still proceeding with some caution. Not taking this risk, was the biggest risk.
We now have access to a tonne of technology that could help us build more quickly and safely, from drones, to automated vehicles. Our government should be doing everything they can to push through this technology, creating controlled sandbox environments to pilot new technologies, outside of the normal regulatory frameworks.
Healthcare is another big one here. I had to go to the hospital last week. The experience was fine, but nothing about it has changed for 20 years, apart from that I signed in on an iPad. Why am I being triaged by a nurse? Surely this can be done via an AI assisted chatbot now. Why doesn’t the hospital have all my medical data? Surely this should be mine, stored on a blockchain that I can give to anyone. Why is a technician manually scanning my moles? Why am I not just standing in a room with high definition cameras, with specific AI identifying if any are dangerous? We can do this for comets in distant galaxies, surely we can do it for dark spots on our skin…
The general thread that ties all of these points together is our inability to see the upside of that which does not exist. I know a non-tech solution that works, why would I expose myself to tech-solution that does the same job? We’re not willing to take these risks, which in turn becomes the biggest risk as it stifles our ability to improve the quality of life for humans.
It seems quite obvious to me that government incentives are all wrong. Voting, for the most part, seems to be a popularity contest, with leaders enacting policies that are in vogue with the crowd. The UK has just issued a $40bn scheme to help individuals and businesses pay their energy bills. I’m not going to comment on whether this is the correct thing to do, but this policy was clearly enacted to improve public perception of the Tory government. It’s effectively a subsidy on Oil & Gas. Oil & Gas has been historically been subsidised heavily by the UK government. OECD data claims that from 2016 to 2020 companies received £9.9 billion in tax reliefs for new exploration and production.
The second-order effects of such subsidies are obvious, Oil & Gas’s true financial cost is shielded from the end customers, which means renewables need their own subsidies in order to compete. What is favourable for the consumer in the short term is not always good for the long-term needs of society. I’m not entirely sure how you create incentives for government to think further than their next election, perhaps an easier approach would just be to limit government’s power…
Limiting Government Roles
Government has three roles in most modern societies. To regulate, to tax, and to invest cash where it sees fit. I believe that everyone should have access to basic needs — a good education, healthcare, food and shelter. Socialists would argue that you need a large central government to deliver this. The problems here are obvious and outlined at length in this article. Government has done a poor job of delivering critical services at a reasonable cost.
Could we live in a world where the government still held the responsibility to regulate and tax, without being capital allocators? I’ll probably write about this more in the future but a really compelling option here is Universal Basic Income. Let’s take education as a use case. Imagine the government was no longer in charge of devising a centralised system of education, and instead, every child was given the current budget of $6500 / year. Metrics of success for schools might be given, that included elements such as student happiness, employability after school and more. Private companies would then compete to provide the best value for money education possible, experimenting with new technologies, business models and more. Rather than schools being postcode monopolies, as they are now, schools would compete fiercely and would be wildly differentiated, some niching down to focus on the needs of children with specific interests or needs, rather than the cookie-cutter approach we have today.
All of these suggestions might seem a bit out of our control, things to be implemented by those who hold power. On an individual level though, I think we could all benefit from understanding the quirks of our brain. The writing of Daniel Kahnemann, Nicholar Tversky, Karl Popper & Nassim Taleb are all good places to start, if only to shine a load on the fallibility of the mind. As a species we’ll never be rational, long-sighted beings, and thank god or life would be very dull, but we can, when it comes to big decisions, occasionally, be a little less wrong.
A few books I’ve read since last time
The Dispossessed - by Ursula K. Le Guin. Great fiction / sci-fi story. Gives some funny / fascinating insights into how an alien might view our society, great story also.
Conspiracy: A True Story of Power, Sex, and a Billionaire’s Secret Plot to Destroy a Media Empire - Ryan Holiday. I really wanted enjoy this as the story of how Peter Thiel took down Gawker for outing him as gay is a fascinating one. This book is just so poorly written I couldn’t get through it. Every other passage is either some attempt at bad self-help or baseless musing on how certain people may have felt about things at certain times.
Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity by Rovelli, Carlo. Perhaps one of the best physics books I’ve ever read. Takes the reader through Newtonian, Einsteinian, Quantum theory and finally Quantum Gravity in easy, understandable leaps. Will change how you think about reality.