Any other business

The clock that stopped: the victory of nuclear arms and defeat of nuclear power

13 August 2015

1:00 PM

13 August 2015

1:00 PM

‘I visited the black marble obelisk which marks the epicentre of the explosion, and I saw the plain domestic wall-clock retrieved intact from the rubble with its bent hands recording the precise time of day when the city was obliterated: 11.02 a.m.

I was glad to be alone, because I could not have spoken.’ Published here 20 years ago, that was my memory of Nagasaki, the target on 9 August 1945 of the second and last nuclear weapon ever deployed. The subsequent seven decades of non-use of nuclear arms — deterred by that most chilling of threats, ‘mutually assured destruction’ — is one of the miracles of modern history, given the unsafe hands in which much of the materiel was held. The sadness is that the opportunity for peaceful use of the same science to provide sustainable, abundant, non–carbon-based power has been gradually muddled away by underinvestment and political shilly-shallying.

In Japan, the entire nuclear industry has been shut down since 2011, when a tsunami led to meltdown at Fukushima, mass evacuation, and the discovery of serious safety faults even though no one died of radiation. Prime minister Shinzo Abe has pressed for a restart, to reduce Japan’s energy import burden, and a reactor at Sendai became the first (of 48 across the country) to resume operations this week. But with echoes of 1945 as well as Fukushima fresh in mind, the Japanese public remain anxiously unpersuaded by statistics of nuclear safety.

Meanwhile in Germany, nuclear power is due to be eliminated by 2022, and the Grafen-rheinfeld station that has supplied Bavaria’s factories for the past 35 years closed in June. In America, too, there’s a growing sense that the nuclear lobby has lost the argument: in an energy scene transformed by cheap fracked gas and advances in solar technology, several new nuclear schemes have been scrapped; the few still going forward are all behind schedule and over budget, and state governments have repeatedly been asked to bail out operators whose existing plants have become uncompetitive.

As for Hinckley Point, the only new nuclear project in hand in the UK, there are continuing doubts over the viability of the chosen European Pressurised Reactor model (which has had problems in France and Finland), the timetable for construction, and a guaranteed ‘strike price’ per megawatt hour of eventual output which is twice the current wholesale price of electricity. Yet without it, and others like it, our lights look likely to go out in a generation’s time.

The nuclear reaction is nature’s most potent generator of energy. As a lethal weapon, humanity has handled it well; as a source of power for all other purposes, we seem to have made a complete hash of it.

Marché a la baisse

In my Dordogne retreat, I see tourist businesses struggling and I’m sad to report that the bellwether of local enterprise, our village marché gourmand nocturne, is a much reduced affair, riven by mysterious fallings-out. Combined with the tyre-burning ferry strikers of Calais, this confirms the impression of a sullen, dispirited, stuck-in-the-mire French economy — and part of the problem is that so many of the country’s citizens with talent and resources that might make a difference are choosing to leave.

Le Figaro offers statistics on the growing exodus of wealthy taxpaying households: for those who previously paid more than €100,000 of income tax, the number of departures was up 40 per cent in 2013 over 2012, and three times the number for 2008; for those who paid more than €300,000, the rate of increase was even steeper, while the exodus of wealth-tax payers, worth an average of €6.6 million each, has been rising steadily by 15 per cent a year — and the number of returnees is tiny.

Figaro doesn’t try to guess where the leavers are going, but illustrates its analysis with a picture of ‘La City, quartier des affaires de Londres’. Obsessed as we are by the social costs of immigration, it’s worth noting that the 300,000 French men and women who have opted to live and work in London represent an enormous fiscal transfer from their state to ours.

Maniacs wanted

‘A bold community project needs a maniac in charge,’ said the consultant who came along, 23 years ago, to write a feasibility study for what is now our thriving Helmsley Arts Centre in Yorkshire, but was then a derelict building and a collective dream. In the absence of other candidates, I became that maniac for a while: the dream became a reality, and I met many people more maniacal than me who were bringing their own community projects to life against the odds. I think, for example, of Arc Light, a charity for the homeless in York, of which I became a trustee: driven by Jeremy Jones, a former music-industry executive whose empathy with his troubled clientele and determination to do more for them was truly remarkable, it secured government support to move from a grotty old railway building to a new 35-bedroom facility that set a national benchmark for the sector.

So the powerful (and perhaps overpowering) personality of Camila Batmanghelidjh, founder of the now closed Kids Company, comes as no surprise. But neither does the allegation of weak financial management, which often goes hand in hand with charismatic leadership unless trustees exercise a very firm grip. No surprise also that politicians queued up to associate themselves with her work, and turned a blind eye to warnings that all was not well: for here (as with Arc Light, but on a far bigger scale) was a prime example of the third sector filling a gap in social provision more effectively than the public sector ever could.

But let’s hope the Kids Company debacle does not bring a backlash of even fiercer compliance demands on charities of all kinds, and even more hoops to jump through in order to gain access to public funds. Most maniacs deserve encouragement, even if they sometimes make mistakes.

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