Thursday, 21 January 2010

No to nuclear: not so clear

I have often been left somewhat confused by the contradictory messages from environmentalists regarding the use of nuclear power. In one breath we are told that climate change will destroy us all unless we stop burning fossil fuels immediately; yet we are then told that the low carbon energy source of nuclear power is not even an option, for it is dangerous, dirty and terrorists will blow us all up. Instead we are told that we should move to renewables as these are safe, clean and it will probably make you your tea if you ask it nicely.

Fine, but is this really true, is this what science tells us, or is there something else driving this debate?

If we look at renewable energy as it stands, then there is an immediate problem with the green lobby message. It cannot meet our energy needs; even if Britain was bristling with wind turbines, like the spines on a hedgehog’s back, lights would still go out, factories would have to reduce production and shock-horror, we might even have to turn our televisions off! I expect as time goes by, given enough financial backing, renewable technology will improve to bridge this energy gap; technology usually does, my x-box makes my eighties Sinclair look positively prehistoric. However “you can’t put the cart before the horse” as my Dad is fond of saying, so until renewables are in a position to meet our energy needs, why not use nuclear?

The argument against nuclear is a flawed one. Firstly nuclear power does not equate to a nuclear bomb; this seems to be a fairly obvious point, however in this debate the obvious and rational have too often been forced into the background. Those against nuclear power will also point you towards Chernobyl, usually in semi-hysterical tones. Let’s be absolutely clear, in terms of technology, Chernobyl is to power stations what the Trabant was to the automotive industry. It was shamefully underfunded by the USSR and safety was non-existent; the disaster was an indictment of the people who ran the plant – not nuclear power. Returning to my x-box metaphor from earlier, the technology of today’s nuclear power plants has massively advanced; the plants of the eighties are arcane in comparison with those being built today.

The second complaint is that the waste produced is too expensive to dispose of, and it remains dangerous for thousands of years. If handled responsibly, nuclear waste can be safely stored. France generates over 75% of its energy from nuclear power and by using ‘the closed fuel cycle’, where the waste is reprocessed to be used again, the amount to be disposed of is greatly reduced. In fact, extrapolating from Department of Trade and Industry figures, an average household would produce a teacup full of high level waste over a seventy year period, indeed all of the high level waste produced over the last fifty years would fit inside the Albert Hall, leaving enough room for another thirty years worth at current production. So, we are hardly swamped with the stuff.

We are also told that terrorists could somehow target a nuclear plant, although how this scenario would play out is never expanded. If they flew a plane into a reactor, they would kill those on board, as well as any plant workers on the ground; however this would NEVER cause a containment breach. They could steal some fuel, however as I have already pointed out, a nuclear power station is not a bomb, if they stole the fuel it would still need to be enriched to be weapons grade. So this argument is perhaps the weakest of all, why go to all that trouble when they could attack a soft target for less effort and greater effect.

So if nuclear is not as dirty or dangerous as the propaganda tells us (if you don't believe me, ask a physicist), renewables cannot possibly meet our current energy needs and we accept that climate change is putting us in peril – why on earth are environmentalists opposing it. From a rational and scientific stand point, their position just doesn’t make any sense. This is the problem with green politics; it isn’t just about saving the environment, it is riddled with politicking, even when this leaves them supporting a view which whilst perhaps well meaning, is contradictory, naive and they are left looking like fools; my suspicion is that as the green movement evolved out of CND and the far left during the seventies; the ‘ban the bomb’ and ‘no to nuclear’ rhetoric has proven just too hard to give up, so hard in fact, they cannot differentiate between a power plant and a bomb.


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