A major shift in attitude to nuclear energy may leave Labour stranded at the ballot box
AS THE world was gripped by the aftermath of Japan's earthquake at the weekend, we were told not to be alarmist about the threat to that country's nuclear plants. The BBC especially reassured us that those very clever Japanese engineers had the situation under control, until yesterday that is.
The awful images and stories make decent people want to focus on the humanitarian disaster. Speculating on the future of nuclear power, a highly political question, might be a bit unseemly. But as the natural disaster threatens to be compounded by a man-made one, such speculation we cannot avoid.
The world financial markets didn't have these qualms. Traders are not known for their idealism, nor are they particularly sensitive to the feelings of others. By yesterday, Bloomberg reported that shares in nuclear utilities had slumped sharply. Analysts said the catastrophe could "spur governments to backtrack on plans to expand atomic energy."
In the UK there is already division on the nuclear question, with Alex Salmond leading an anti-nuclear SNP government while Westminster is keen to build more reactors. France has even more cause to worry with one of the largest nuclear generation capacities in the world which exports its technology. But shares in Electricite de France SA, the world's largest operator of nuclear reactors, slumped as much as 4.8 per cent in Paris trading yesterday. Areva, the world's largest maker of nuclear reactors, dipped 10 percent.
Companies specialising in renewables had a different story to tell. Nobody wishes to benefit from misery, but on Monday that burden fell on Nordex and Solarworld. Both deal in wind and solar generation respectively.
The markets began to embrace renewables even before the explosion and meltdown alert at a third reactor yesterday afternoon.
At the time of writing, engineers were using sea water to try to cool the exposed fuel rods in the number 2 reactor at Fukushima Daiichi.
We are so used throwing the word meltdown around we have forgotten its original meaning - Charlie Sheen is a: "Top Ten Celebrity meltdown". Without dismissing Mr Sheen's personal difficulties, a real meltdown has far wider implications. In a nuclear meltdown the molten, highly radioactive core of the reactor falls through the floor of the containment vessel and into the ground underneath. Not only would this mean radioactive material getting into the environment, but it renders the reactor itself unstable.
Next month will see the 25th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster 100km north of Kiev in the Ukraine.The explosion and meltdown killed 50 people and resulted in radioactive fallout across Europe, with Ukraine, Belarus and Russia suffering most - cases of cancer and birth defects are attributed to the disaster.
It wasn't surprising that nuclear power was extremely unpopular post Chernobyl. In more recent years, the focus on global warming has tended to occupy the younger generation of green-minded people more. The nuclear industry's PR machine has been quick to promote it as a carbon free alternative. However all the big environmental charities such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace remain implacably opposed.
Germany has always had a strong anti-nuclear movement and it was quick to protest against events in Japan. Around 50,000 formed a human chain around a nuclear facilities near Stuttgart this weekend. Chancellor Angela Merkel wants to extend the lives of nuclear plants by 12 years.
That decision was already set to be a contentious issue in the forthcoming regional elections and will now probably be central to their outcome. The markets certainly think so - Nordex and Solarworld are both German companies.
It is not just Germany that has elections looming. Scotland's Holyrood vote is just weeks away. Although the Scottish parliament does not control energy, it can veto nuclear plants through the planning system and the SNP has made it clear that none will be approved. They have instead concentrated on Scotland's potential in new marine energy such as wave and tidal power and offshore wind.
Until recently this strategy was more about the positive benefits to be gained from green engineering jobs - particularly if we can export our expertise along with our electricity. Now safety enters the mix, as the world looks at horror to Japan.
Alex Salmond refused to play the ball this weekend when asked on the Politics Show Scotland what lessons Scotland could learn from the damage to Japan's nuclear power stations. Given that Mr Salmond, an energy economist by profession, served for a decade on the House of Commons Energy Select Committee and has visited Japanese nuclear facilities, the question was relevant.
But with 10,000 feared dead the First Minister preferred to focus on the scale of devastation, and what the world could do to help. He even commented that the Japanese power stations he had visited were very well built. That leaves voters to conclude for themselves that even the best-built reactors in one of the world's most technologically advanced countries can go wrong.
Of course Scotland is unlikely to face an earthquake any time soon. But things can and do go wrong with technology - "the unknown unknowns" to quote Donald Rumsfeld.And when things go wrong in nuclear technology, the implications are far, far more serious than with anything else.
While Mr Salmond may have held back for now, Friends of the Earth Scotland was much more forthright "The only safe and secure form of energy in the world we live in now is that which harnesses our clean resources. Nuclear is an un-safe technology that should not form any part of our future energy mix," they said at the weekend.
The opposition parties are all left in a precarious position. The Tories have always been pro nuclear. The Liberal Democrat Energy minister at Westminister, Chris Huhne used to be until that became another coalition cave in. As energy minister in the last Labour government, Ed Miliband paved the way for 10 new nuclear power stations in 2009 and insisted the technology was safe - maybe we will see less of him now in the Holyrood campaign …
Iain Gray, the Labour leader in Holyrood, is further compromised because Torness nuclear power station sits in his East Lothian constituency. Unlike Jack McConnell, he is very much with London on nuclear power, attacking the SNP's policy with a vigour. This could cause problems for the Greens, who have desperately tried to cosy up to Labour in recent months. The Greens were, by definition, an anti-nuclear party, just like the SNP. So why they have been flirting so heavily with Labour is anyone's guess.
They can hardly suggest Mr Gray is anything less than clear in his position. Take this typical comment while visiting Torness in 2009: "I think nuclear for some time to come has a very important part to play and I think most of the world agrees with that now."
Not any more.
• Joan McAlpine is an SNP list candidate for the south of Scotland in May's Scottish Parliament elections