Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Nuclear: The Big Sell, The Big Worry

In case you haven't noticed, in the last six month or so, there has been a big sell on the nuclear front in the UK. A whole series of strategically placed articles have kick-started a debate that many of us hoped had gone away.

The first opening salve was fired by Jim Lovelock (author of Gaia) in a front-page story in The Independent www.ecolo.org/media/articles/articles.in.english/love-indep-24-05-04.htm in which he advocated a massive expansion of nuclear power. This story puzzled me as it was presented as if an environmentalist had now changed his views and was turning pro-nuclear. The rationale for this being climate change. He called it 'the one, safe, available energy source.'

Puzzled because I interviewed Lovelock back in 1986 (May 1st) and, as he led me on a brisk walk up some craggy rocks outside Plymouth in a pre-interview cross-country scramble near his home town of Launceston, he lectured me on the fact that the rocks were emitting natural radiation and I was likely to get a bigger dose from them than from any nuclear power station.

Video of a Paxman interview with Lovelock and Zak Goldsmith, editor of The Ecologist can be found here:

On the 26th June, The Independent published Nuclear Power 'Can't Stop Climate Change' by Geoffrey Lean which contradicted Lovelock's position: 'Nuclear power cannot solve global warming, the international body set up to promote atomic energy admits today. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which exists to spread the peaceful use of the atom, reveals in a new report that it could not grow fast enough over the next decades to slow climate change - even under the most favorable circumstances. The report - published to celebrate yesterday's 50th anniversary of nuclear power - contradicts a recent surge of support for the atom as the answer to global warming.'

Next came the ubiquitous Dr Ian Fells, who works for the nuclear industry, popping up on BBC Breakfast Time followed by Rod Liddell in the New Statesman. Others followed suit, including Robin McKie in The Observer (15.8.04) in an article entitled 'Why Reacting Against Reactors is Irrational.'

More recently the Chief Scientist Sir David King weighed in (The Independent 12.5.05), following news that Tony Blair was planning to revive the nuclear option.

Like many others of my generation, I spent many years opposing nuclear power (and of course nuclear weapons and their proliferation) with very good reason. In our lifetimes, the world has not only come close to nuclear war on several occasions but is now threatened by the spectre of nuclear proliferation amongst a wide variety of nations including North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, India, Israel and others outside of the main nuclear club (UK, US, Russia, France and China).

On the nuclear power front, we have had one truly major nuclear accident at Chernobyl in 1986, but also hundreds of other serious incidents from the Windscale Fire in 1957 to Three Mile Island 1979 that caused many to question the safety aspects of nuclear plants with good reason.

This is something I know about, having acted as main writer and editor of The Greenpeace Book of the Nuclear Age (Published by Gollancz [UK] Pantheon Books [US] in 1989) which remains to this day the most comprehensive study of both military and civil accidents and incidents yet compiled. It is of course not up to date but it is doubtful that the level of accidents has diminished.

Nuclear energy is not a safe technology. It is prone to a wide variety of problems, many due to human fallibility. There remains no safe way of disposing of nuclear waste. Nuclear stations provide prime targets for terrorists. The risks involved with the transport of nuclear material offers other opportunities for nuclear material to go adrift.

We have some fifty years of evidence that the nuclear experiment has not gone according to plan; its progress has been littered with glitches, leaks and incidents that have caused widespread contamination and caused the injury and death of many.

For instance, on 21 May this year, New Scientist reported the findings of the International Agency for Research on Cancer whose work has confirmed that radioactive iodine-131 from the Chernobyl accident in 1986 really is to blame for the hundreds of thyroid cancers among children in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. (Full report in Journal of the National Cancer Institute, vol 97, p.724). Children's thyroid glands are especially sensitive to radiation and the report suggest that, because of this, children should not have dental x-rays without good reason.

Read Martin Cruz Smith's review of Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich [Dalkey Archive Press] (The Times 4.6.05). Cruz Smith wrote Gorky Park and his new book Wolves Eat Dogs is another Renko adventure set in and around Chernobyl. It's brilliant.

More recently, the UK Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment finally completed their report into clusters of childhood cancers in the UK, which they began in 1993. They looked at an area of 25mls around all the nuclear installations in Britain and say that there were no more cancer cases than you would expect.

They did find clusters of excess leukaemias and on Hodgkin's lymphomas near the reprocessing plants of Sellafield and Dounreay and around the atomic weapons plant at Burghfield. They found slightly more other sorts of childhood cancers around Aldermaston, Burghfield and Harwell.

The chairman of COMARE said the reasons for these increases were not clear but, at both Sellafield and Dounreay, the argumentwas put forward that this may have been caused by an influx of migrant workers who transferred new viruses into these remote and isolated communities. He denied that the report's publication at this time was a political fix. (see The Guardian 10.6.05)

A day later, a list of proposed nuclear waste dump sites, kept secret since the 1980s, was made public in The Independent. The sites are: Bradwell and Potton Island, Essex; Stanford, Norfolk; Killinghome, Lincs; two at Sellafield, Dounreay and Alltnabreac in Caithness and the Fuday and Sandray islands in the Outer Hebrides. Offshore sites near Redcar, North Yorkshire, and Hunterston oin the Clyde were also considered. Nuclear waste is currently stores at 34 locations around the UK, awaiting a decision on longterm disposal.

See also: Trident: The Done Deal by Robert Fox http://www.newstatesman.com/200506130008
'It is expected that, in the next few months, Tony Blair will announce that the British government will fork out tens of billions of pounds for a new generation of British nuclear weapons to replace the ageing Trident D5 missiles and our four Vanguard Class submarines. The outcry from vocal sections of the public has already been discounted in Whitehall. The deed, I am told, is done. But you will not find any-one prepared to admit it.'

In this writer's view, we must continue to oppose all nuclear development. The answer to the problem of climate change is not nuclear power nor alternative energy systems on their own. Energy efficiency is the key. There are massive savings we could make at every level of our society which would obviate the need for even more centralised energy production. We could not only meet our carbon targets by this route but also lessen our reliance on foreign-based oil reserves.

We need a national initiative to this end, incentivising the construction and transport industries primarily to ensure that all new built houses are energy efficient and that all new vehicles are too. Individuals should be encouraged through further incentives to retrofit their homes and improve the fuel consumption in their existing cars. Power should be generated locally though a wide range of alternative energy systems (biomass being the most underused) rather than developing wind energy to the detriment of all other energy solutions. Manufacturers should be forced to reduce the energy consumption of all powered consumer items and a mass education programme should show us all how we must now work together on this problem. Such measures taken as a whole, could have a huge impact on our whole energy outlook and would stand as an example to the world. More on this tack anon.

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