Nuclear power: time for a rethink?

Nuclear power: time for a rethink?  
It was once the ultimate green taboo. Now, as the drawbacks of fossil fuels become more apparent, is it time to learn to love atomic energy? Two experts present the arguments
28 August 2004

No, thanks - Zac Goldsmith Editor of 'The Ecologist'

There is finally a consensus on the gravity of the threat we face from climate change, and most people agree that something urgently needs to be done to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. But given the depth of our dependence, that's no small task. And so in panic, a number of high-profile commentators are calling for the widespread adoption of nuclear power. Greens, they say, have to choose between climate change and their old enemy - nuclear power.

But it's a manufactured choice, peddled by an industry in the final spasm of a struggle to survive. Fundamentally, nuclear power is a problem, not a solution. And it's a problem on virtually every level.

Take the issue of security. About a week before the 11 September 2001 atrocity, the director of the French nuclear installation giant, Cogema, was asked about the risks of an airborne attack on a French power plant. He answered that there was no risk, because "it is forbidden to fly over it at low altitude." As far as I know, it's also illegal to fly planes into New York buildings.

Shortly after the attacks, the International Atomic Energy Agency warned that an attack on a nuclear plant is "far more likely" following 11 September. "If the terrorist is willing to die," the director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, said, "that changes the security equation drastically." British Energy echoed those calls, and pleaded with the Government to take protective measures. British Nuclear Fuels meanwhile described the prospect of a fuel-laden commercial jet colliding with a nuclear plant as "unthinkable".

It's worth thinking about it, for an attack on Sellafield in Cumbria would be 100 times more disastrous than the Chernobyl accident and would likely cause more than 2 million people to die of cancer.

But with or without terrorists, the lives of countless British people dangle in the hands of the technocrats each and every day. And as we know, technocrats make mistakes. Last year, for instance, Sellafield came close to disaster when explosive gases were allowed to build up in tanks that store highly-radioactive nuclear waste. Amazingly, the BNFL staff on duty ignored warning alarms for nearly three hours. Even without potential disasters, routine radioactive emissions ensure cancer clusters around virtually every installation. Sellafield, for instance, boasts a cancer cluster 10 times the national average.

Two years ago, Vice-President Dick Cheney lamented that the US government hadn't approved a single application for a new nuclear power plant for 20 years. What he didn't say was that there had been no application. Nuclear power is a bad investment. Without massive government involvement and incalculable public subsidies, it simply wouldn't exist. According to The Economist, OECD governments poured $159bn (£89bn) into nuclear research between 1974 and 1998. BNFL, meanwhile, has admitted it faces a bill of £34bn to clean up waste, and it expects that waste to increase by a minimum of 500 per cent over the next decade.

On every level, nuclear is an unattractive option, unless you happen to belong to al-Qa'ida and want to close down an economy overnight. So for the industry to be granted a life-extension requires belief that it is the only solution to an even bigger problem - climate change.

But even there, nuclear power is a false hope. The instinctively pro-nuclear Mr Blair was told last year by his own energy advisors that nuclear is a "red herring". "You can achieve a low-carbon economy without nuclear," they told him.

And, they might have added, such a goal can be realised without smothering Britain in wind turbines. For one thing, such a scenario assumes demand will always be as high, if not higher than it is now. But demand need not grow. According to a recent US study, investing $5.2bn in energy conservation in the federal government's 500,000 buildings would lead to savings of more than $1bn each year, indefinitely - an enormous return by any standard. It's quite clear that with investments in energy conservation, energy consumption would shrink dramatically without the need for sacrifice of any sort.

Such a scenario also assumes that wind is the only renewable alternative. Currently, it does seem to be the most effective. The Cabinet Office's Performance and Innovation Unit has said that offshore wind alone has the potential to provide 10 times more electricity than is currently used. But equally, whole villages in Britain's West Country are on the verge of being powered by environmentally benign small hydro projects. Biomass is emerging as the answer for others. Solar power is becoming cheaper by the year, and more efficient.

All these alternatives exist, and with modest investment will continue to improve. What's more, they carry none of the security and health risks associated with nuclear power. Nor will the taxpayer be forced to cough up limitless resources to keep them going.

One way or another, the government needs to expand its pitiful renewable energy programme and implement a massive programme of energy conservation. And it needs to do so in a democratic manner. If it fails, we face the frightening prospect of a renewed nuclear programme, or almost as bad, dependence for nearly four fifths of our energy on gas imports from such countries as Algeria and Iran. In such a scenario, the opportunities for disruptive terrorism would prove too tempting by far, and Britain would find itself teetering permanently on the edge of blackout ... or total contamination.

Zac Goldsmith is editor of 'The Ecologist' magazine, 

Yes, please - James Lovelock Creator of the 'Gaia' theory

Ispent my childhood in the English countryside over 70 years ago where we lived a simple life without telephones or electricity. Horses were still a normal source of power and we hardly imagined radio and television.

One thing I remember well was how superstitious we all were. Men and women who in other ways were intelligent, fearfully avoided places said to be haunted. They would suffer inconvenience rather than travel on Fridays that were the 13th day of the month.

Their irrational fears fed on ignorance and were quite common. I cannot help thinking that they persist, but now these fears are about the products of science. This is particularly true of nuclear power plants that seem to stir the dread that in the past was felt about a moonlit graveyard thought to be infested with werewolves and vampires.

The fear of nuclear energy is understandable through its association in the mind with the horrors of nuclear warfare, but it is unjustified; nuclear power plants are not bombs. They are, in fact, built solidly enough to withstand even a direct hit by a plane in a terrorist attack, according to industry experts.

What at first was a proper concern for safety has become a near-pathological anxiety. Much of the blame for this goes to the news media, the television and film industries, and fiction writers. All these have used the fear of things nuclear as a reliable prop to sell their wares. They, and the political disinformers who sought to discredit the nuclear industry as potential enemies, have been so successful at frightening the public that it is now impossible in many nations to propose a new nuclear power plant.

No source of power is entirely safe, even windmills are not free of fatal accidents, but compared to nuclear power, the dangers of continuing to burn fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal) as our main energy source are far greater and they threaten not just individuals but civilisation itself. Much of the First World behaves like an addicted smoker: we are so used to burning fossil fuels for our needs that we ignore their long-term risks.

Polluting the air with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases has no immediate consequences, but continued pollution leads to climate changes whose effects are only apparent when it is almost too late for a cure. Carbon dioxide poisons the environment just as salt can poison us. No harm comes from a modest intake, but a daily diet with too much salt can cause a lethal quantity to accumulate in the body.

Although nothing we do will destroy life on Earth, we could change the environment to a point where civilisation is threatened. Sometime in this or the next century we may see this happen because of climate change and a rise in the level of the sea. If we go on burning fossil fuel at the present rate it is probable that all of the cities of the world now at sea level will be flooded.

Try to imagine the social consequences of hundreds of millions of homeless refugees seeking dry land on which to live. In the turmoil, they may look back and wonder how humans could have been so foolish as to bring so much misery upon themselves by the thoughtless burning of carbon fuels. They may then reflect regretfully that they could have avoided their miseries by the safe use of nuclear energy.

Nuclear power, although potentially harmful to people, is a negligible danger to the planet. Natural ecosystems can stand levels of continuous radiation that would be intolerable in a city. The land around Chernobyl was evacuated because its high radiation intensity made it unsafe for people, but this radioactive land is now rich in wildlife, much more so than neighbouring areas.

Even scientists seem to forget our planet's radioactive history. When a star ends as a supernova, the nuclear explosive material, which includes uranium and plutonium, together with large amounts of iron and other burnt-out elements, scatters in space, as does the dust cloud of a hydrogen bomb test.

Perhaps the strangest thing about the Earth is that it formed from lumps of fall-out from a star-sized nuclear bomb. This is why, even today, the Earth's crust has enough uranium left to reconstitute the original event on a minute scale.

There is no other credible explanation for the great quantity of unstable elements still present. The most primitive and old-fashioned Geiger counter will indicate that we stand on the fall-out of a vast ancient nuclear explosion. Within our bodies, half a million atoms, rendered unstable in that event, still erupt every minute, releasing a tiny fraction of the energy stored from that fierce fire of long ago.

Life began nearly four billion years ago under conditions of radioactivity far more intense than those that trouble the minds of certain present-day environmentalists. Moreover, the air had neither oxygen nor ozone so that the fierce unfiltered ultra-violet radiation of the sun irradiated the surface of the Earth. We need to keep in mind the thought that these fierce energies flooded the very womb of life.

At least in the short term, alternative sources of energy remain wildly uneconomical. A recent report by the Royal Academy of Engineering showed that the nuclear option was the second cheapest means of generating electricity, at 2.3p per kilowatt hour, after gas at 2.2p (gas prices have since shot up), while wind power costs more than 5p per kWH.

I hope that it is not too late for the world to emulate France and make nuclear power our principal source of energy. At present we have no other viable alternative.

'Environmentalists For Nuclear Energy' by Bruno Comby, with a preface by James Lovelock (TNR Editions) is available from