Coal and the EU reply to Janos' point

August 16 2010 at 11:12 PM
Guy Burgess 

Response to Re: Reid, Scargill and Janos...

While Thatcher had an ideological objection to the retention of the NCB and her aim was always to privatise the coal industry its destruction cannot simply be put down to Tory hatred of militant miners (though the eventual settlement was nowhere near as generous as that in France). Nor can it be simply be attributed to the need to purchase cheap coal from abroad because it was matched by a greater drive to develop the nuclear and oil & gas sectors.

I've had a glance over the 20 or so books I've got on the Miners Strike but I haven't been able to source the story about the EU deal. Nor have I been able to find anything on the Web about it.But it was certainly current during the Miners' Strike. Going from memory the argument was that the rationalisation in European Community (beginning with the European Coal and Steel Community) required France and Britain to drastically cut-back on coal production to off-set the role played by their substantial nuclear energy industries (which originally were established to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons). And that's certainly what has happened. The last French coal mine closed in 2004 and British mining is on its last legs.

On the broader issue Scargill and the NUM have repeated challenged the argument about "unproductive" British coal in a number of "case for coal" pamphlets and articles over the past 30 years. The first was the moral issue -- that cheap overseas coal is often produced by "cheap" unorganised or child labour and its import is "unethical" -- which is an argument that could be used about virtually anything imported into Britain these days. I accept that one could equally argue that deep mining is brutalising no matter where it takes place and that its end should equally be welcomed as an "ethical" advance.

But the more substantial points are:

1. Oil and gas are not "cheap" or environmentally friendly products (the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is a good example) and global reserves are very limited. (a further argument which has only appeared in recent years is that EU dependence on Gazprom leaves member states open to economic blackmail in the future).

2. Nuclear energy only appears to be "cheap" if the costs of decommissioning and the long-term problem of nuclear waste reprocessing or dumping are not factored into the equation not to mention the potentially disastrous risks involved in production (cf: Chernobyl and Three Mile Island) which far exceed that of "acid rain" and other hazards produced by coal-fired power stations.

3. British coal, on the other hand, has reserves that could last a thousand years and therefore it provides a secure basis for an integrated energy programme.

I don't personally subscribe to the "peak oil" theory that argues that we have, or soon will be on the downward slide, and I think we will still be using oil a hundred years from now.But the case against nuclear energy and the need for alternatives is clearly growing. Wind and hydro power is one answer. Maybe solar energy as well. But economic nuclear fusion remains an elusive dream and the "green" answer of reduced consumption is no solution in a rapidly industrialising world, an increasing population and a global market.

Guy Burgess
Eton & Cambridge

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