Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Italy’s Anti-Nuclear Vote

The nuclear power industry has to be reeling from the scale of the anti-nuclear vote in Italy yesterday.

To appreciate this, you have to look at both the turnout and the margin of victory. The turnout, estimated at 57 percent, was the highest in 16 years for any ballot question, and within the range of a presidential election in the United States. And this was with a get-out-the-vote effort that was largely organized on Twitter after the state-owned media imposed a blackout on the special election to try to confuse voters and discourage participation. This aspect of it in particular has some in Italy calling the referendum a revolution. And when the votes were counted, the margin of victory was so large one has to wonder, with the benefit of hindsight, why the question had to put to the ballot at all. More than 95 percent of voters voted yes, to shut down nuclear power. About 4 percent voted to retain the nuclear program. There were so few no votes that all of them could have come from power company employees, factory owners, and the personal friends of the staunchly pro-nuclear president. If you discount the voters who had a personal financial interest at stake, the vote was essentially unanimous.

This was a vote in one country, but voter sentiment there is not so different from voter sentiment anywhere else. There is no reason to imagine that voters anywhere would vote to blanket their country with nuclear power stations, if they had the opportunity to vote on it. This must be one of the reasons why politicians so rarely trust the people with any nuclear questions.

What yesterday’s vote in Italy says is that consumers don’t benefit from nuclear power. From the consumer point of view, the whole industry is a sham, putting public money and people’s health at risk for the purpose of providing subsidized electricity to large industrial users, a giveaway to the wealthy that the ordinary people end up paying for.

This is an easy picture to draw in Italy, where an arrogant billionaire president is asking for public money to build a nuclear empire, as his top “policy” priority. But wherever you go, nuclear power cannot be justified in purely financial terms. Governments support nuclear power only where it fits with their visions of concentration of political power, and the power companies take financial risks with it knowing that the taxpayers and ratepayers are there to bail them out.

After yesterday’s vote, it is fair to consider nuclear power as an empire, imposed on nations against the people’s will as a sort of hidden tax. Its unstated purpose, as with any empire, is the concentration of wealth and political power. The fact that a useful product, electricity, is generated along the way need not confuse anyone, especially now that anyone with a $2,000 box on the roof can generate electricity. More to the point, if you have $20 billion to spend on generating electricity, you have many choices open to you, few of which are as balky and inefficient as a nuclear reactor.