Forget about wind farms. Nuclear power is the future
We are energy junkies, but there's a safe, clean answer to our cravings
Monday May 30, 2005
Now and again, I feel a flash of my old respect for Tony Blair. One such moment came recently, when he announced a commitment to reopen the debate on nuclear power. If this remark prompts action, and does not slip away into the sand like so much government rhetoric, then Blair will have done something genuinely statesmanlike.
Contrast his words with those of a junior minister on the radio a few months ago. This functionary observed complacently that there was no urgency about nuclear decisions because Britain's power needs were secure for at least 15 years. What he meant, of course, was that he would have long since retired to a comfortable billet in the House of Lords before any lights started going out.
One could hear the man's relief at not having to participate in a public argument that provokes so much heat and dust. I got a taste of this the last time I suggested in the Guardian that nuclear power might come to seem the least bad option for Britain's energy needs. I almost drowned in cross emails from readers, not all called Toynbee or Monbiot, of which the general refrain was "Never!"
Before anything can happen there is a bitter public argument to be won, yet it is surely worth the winning. Good government, as distinct from comfortable politics, is about making unwelcome choices. At present, the very word "nuclear" inspires a Pavlovian reaction, understandable in this 60th anniversary year of Hiroshima.
It is chilling that some military chiefs - though, thank heavens, no British ones - display a continuing fascination with the concept of "usable nukes". Terrorists will strive to gain possession of nuclear devices. Preventing them will remain a major preoccupation for global security in the 21st century.
Yet it seems wrong to dismiss nuclear energy merely because of our revulsion for nuclear weapons. Atomic power has worked. Today it provides 23% of Britain's energy, which is scheduled to fall to 7% by 2020 as old stations reach their expiry date.
Nobody can propose a credible alternative energy source that is anything like as environmentally acceptable. Anyone who supposes that wind turbines can meet demand is a mathematical duffer. A wind farm the size of Dartmoor would be required to provide the energy of one nuclear plant. In the past, atomic power has been very costly, but in the future it is reckoned that it will be cheaper than fossil fuels if oil prices exceed $28 a barrel (the current price is $50).
Opponents of nuclear power are on good ground when they point to the incompetence, and propensity for deceit, of those who have managed the British atomic industry over the past half-century. I remember a Tory minister saying in exasperation 15 years ago: "It is depressing to stand up in the House of Commons and broadcast explicit assurances from our nuclear 'experts' one day, only to find them discredited the next."
If Britain builds a new generation of nuclear generators, we can be confident that they will overrun cost predictions and there will be mishaps. A sceptic might explode and say: "You can't use a word like 'mishap' to describe a nuclear accident!" Yet all industries suffer accidents. Almost 50 years of worldwide nuclear power generation has killed far fewer people than the oil or mining industries in the same period. Britain's surviving coalpits suffer an annual 11 deaths per 100,000, and twice as many miners die in Russia. The Piper Alpha oil rig disaster killed 167.
The Chernobyl catastrophe of 1986 represented a nadir of technical failure, and is thought to have been as bad as a nuclear accident can get. Some 45 people perished - but Greenpeace predicts that between 30,000 and 50,000 more will die over the next half-century from radiation-related diseases.
Yet Greenpeace is more famous for its enthusiasm and media savvy than the reliability of its science, which is often lamentable. Environmentalism and intellectual rigour seldom march together. Other independent studies of Chernobyl forecast a fraction of the fatalities anticipated by Greenpeace. After the American nuclear leak at Three Mile Island, there were no deaths at all.
All forms of human activity, especially industrial, are vulnerable to accidents. Few people refuse to fly because there are occasional ghastly crashes. The challenge is to measure risk intelligently, rather than emotionally.
The disposal of nuclear waste is a serious issue because of the twin risks of leakage and terrorist acquisition of fissionable material. But such waste has been stored in Britain since 1950. Many other nations generate nuclear power - 30 plants are under construction, of which nine are in India, four in China, three in Japan and one in South Korea. It seems mistaken to suppose that Britain's stock of nuclear waste will somehow be uniquely vulnerable.
Those who still turn aside in revulsion should consider soaring world energy needs. Demand is believed to have grown by 50% since 1980. The United Nations suggests that it will increase by a further 85% by 2020. We are all energy junkies. We may argue about means of satisfying the global craving, but it seems wildly fanciful to suppose that it can be met by wind farms.
Need is causing a lot of people to think again about their gut resistance. Even Germany, with its powerful Green party, is thinking hard about its decision to end nuclear generation. In 1988 Sweden started to phase out its 11 nuclear power stations. Today, however, the rising price of fossil fuels, together with a mounting enthusiasm for curbing greenhouse gas emissions, has caused a start ling change of public sentiment. A recent poll suggests that 80% of Swedes now favour nuclear power. The country is building a new repository for nuclear waste.
Ask British people today "Are you in favour of nuclear power?" and many will answer "No". The challenge is to oblige people to answer different questions: "Are you happy to see British nuclear generating capacity fall, while greenhouse-gas targets are missed?"
If they find this line opaque it might be rephrased as: "Do you mind your lights, heating, TV, cooker and freezer going off?" That is what has been happening in California, where nobody bothered to think responsibly about the state's rising energy requirements until air conditioners started dying.
I simply do not believe the Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth lobbyists who suggest that renewable sources can meet future needs. Nor do I want to live in a landscape dominated by turbines.
The anti-nuclear lobby is so impassioned and the public's instinctive inertia so great that it may be years before a new commitment is made to nuclear power. It takes at least a decade to design and build a power station, and the Sizewell B planning inquiry lasted six years. Every British business and household will pay for delays in formulating and executing a new policy. But I will bet my socks that half a century from now our children will depend heavily on nuclear power to keep their lights burning - because there will be nothing else that is clean, affordable and works.