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Fissile fantasies

The nuclear industry has always had something of the absurd about it. Efforts to recover its lost glory by painting itself green is just the latest example of this.

June 1, 2006
14 min read

At the dawn of the atomic age there was a great deal of faith that nuclear physics would solve many of the world’s most pressing problems. People were spoon-fed a diet rich in promises of nuclear salvation. By the time Italian scientist Enrico Fermi managed to control a chain reaction on a Chicago squash court in 1942, earlier discoveries into the nature of radiation had already sparked off a massive appetite for all things atomic. As Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, the German scientist who discovered X-rays in 1895, remarked to his colleagues: ‘And now the Devil has been let loose.’

With full confidence in the atomic dream, people embraced snazzy new x-ray technologies with eagerness. All sorts of ludicrous applications of these new discoveries were devised. X-ray devices were used for everything from curing headaches and colds to fitting shoes. The radioactive element radium, first discovered by Marie Curie at the turn of the century, was used in ‘health foods’ and cigarette filters in Europe and North America. Men were encouraged to use radium suppositories as an early 20th century Viagra.

This mass psychosis lasted decades and was not just the preserve of quacks and venture capitalists. Mainstream media, the government and the medical and scientific establishments were the honour guard of this new nuclear revolution. This mainstream endorsement combined with the prevalent cultural atomophilia led many to undergo dangerous treatments and expose themselves to high levels of radiation unnecessarily. For example, while Captain Atom adorned the covers of little boys’ comic books in hospital waiting rooms, their mothers and grandmothers were having their ovaries irradiated as ‘treatment’ for depression and menopause.

The atomic age not only spawned a whole culture and attendant industry, it pointed to a fantastic techno-future where anything was possible (with nuclear power of course). One science journalist predicted that there would no longer be such a thing as bad weather thanks to the help of nuclear ‘artificial suns’ mounted on gleaming towers all over the world. Another researcher suggested that roads could be improved by using reactors to melt highways directly on to the landscape.

Perhaps the most enduring nuclear fantasy was the one articulated by Lewis L Strauss. In 1954 Strauss, then head of the US Atomic Energy Commission, famously opined that: ‘It is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electricity too cheap to meter, will know of great periodic regional famines in the world only as matters of history, will travel effortlessly over the seas and under them and through the air with a minimum of danger at great speeds, and will experience a lifespan far longer than ours as disease yields and man comes to understand what causes him to age.’

It was on this wave of gushing optimism that the majority of the world’s civil nuclear reactors were built, the bulk of which are still in operation today. It wasn’t until the Three Mile Island meltdown in Pennsylvania in 1979 and the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine seven years later, however, that the industry’s fortunes began to freefall. The fantasy, it seemed, was firmly shattered for a broad majority of people once the realities of this dangerous dice-game became apparent.

Of late, though, it seems that once again we can hear the rattle of the dice as nuclear is making a comeback. But this time it is a different fantasy that is being promoted – that of nuclear power as a solution to climate change.

The Lovelock syndrome

It was two years ago that I first began to take notice of just how seductive a tale this was for many. Sure, the nuclear lobby had been banging on about its climate friendly credentials for years before, but few paid them much notice, given that anti-nuclear activism has long been the bedrock of modern environmentalism. But this changed in May 2004 when a now infamous article by scientist James Lovelock, founder of the Gaia hypothesis (which postulates that the earth acts as one super organism), was splashed across the front page of the Independent.

The article conjured up fears of impending doom from climate change, overpopulation and deforestation. Lovelock admonished critics of the nuclear industry and what he called their ‘irrational fear fed by Hollywood-style fiction, the Green lobbies and the media’. Their fears, he said, are unjustified, and ‘nuclear energy from its start in 1952 has proved to be the safest of all energy sources’. The environmentalist icon concluded that ‘nuclear power is the only green solution’.

The outburst was hardly surprising from the always pro-nuclear Lovelock, but the article’s release was well timed. The British government had just been making some noises about its climate change policies and energy strategy, hinting at a possible nod to nuclear power. Estimates of the death toll from France’s 2003 heatwave had also just been released suggesting that upwards of 20,000 people died that summer and climate change was widely fingered as the culprit. And the rising price of oil was beginning to feature regularly in news reports as a cause of concern to the frequently ‘jittery’ markets. Momentum was building.

Until then, talk of supporting new nuclear power stations in the UK was considered political suicide. None of the major parties would touch it with a cooling rod. But the Gaian guru’s insistence that we have to use nuclear ‘now, or suffer the pain soon to be inflicted by our outraged planet,’ drove a wedge.

A number of high-profile greens followed Lovelock’s lead with cautious, and in some cases enthusiastic, endorsement of this once reviled technology, helping to break the taboo still further. Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore, Hugh Montefiore, former Bishop of Birmingham and long-time Friends of the Earth trustee, and a few others played their part. So what was so different that suddenly environmentalists felt they could jump on the nuclear bandwagon?

‘It’s not that something new and important and good has happened with nuclear,’ explains US environmentalist Stewart Brand. ‘It’s that something new and important and bad has happened with climate change.’ British author and climate activist Mark Lynas echoes this sentiment: ‘If you ask me, anything is preferable to planetary climatic meltdown combined with a 1930s-style collapse into political darkness. Even nuclear power.’ It is clear that most of those greens that favour nuclear power are motivated less by a genuine enthusiasm than by overwhelming terror of looming climate catastrophe. Unlike the almost maniacal optimism of the first atomic age, their support for nuclear’s second wind is rooted in a desperate pessimism.

All that glitters is not green

Many governments are indeed likely to fail to meet their meagre greenhouse-gas reduction commitments set out under the Kyoto Protocol, and as concerns about climate change mount, inaction may finally begin to be politically costly.

This shines a new and more flattering light on the nuclear power industry. Every pro-nuclear organisation now touts the technology’s carbon-free credentials. The visitor centre at the Sellafield reprocessing facility on the West Cumbrian coastline has almost as much exhibition space devoted to climate change as to nuclear science. Global warming has given the industry such a PR boost that if climate change didn’t exist, the industry would want to invent it. As Guardian columnist George Monbiot acidly observed: ‘For 50 years, nuclear power has been a solution in search of a problem.’

It is perhaps due to this confluence of events and opportunities that the UK government changed course so dramatically in its energy policy. In 2003 it ruled out supporting nuclear, arguing that to do so would guarantee ‘that we would not make the necessary investment in both energy efficiency and renewables’. Its 2003 energy white paper assured us that the government would pursue a policy that reduced ‘the amount of energy we consume, together with a substantial increase in renewable energy’, much to the approval of leading environmental groups. It has, however, spectacularly failed to follow through.

According to Greenpeace, the government has ‘done nothing to encourage wave and tidal energy projects, has cut financial support for micro-renewables and is winding down its support programme for solar energy six years early. It has failed to give grants for the second round of offshore wind developments, failed to alleviate the cost of connection to the National Grid and failed to aid development of combined heat and power. The government has also cut back on community power schemes for small-scale renewables two years early.’

Instead of addressing these failings, there was silence and inertia. That is until the 2005 Labour Party conference, at which Tony Blair asked: ‘For how much longer can countries like ours allow the security of our energy supply to be dependent on some of the most unstable parts of the world?’ His answer: ‘an assessment of all options, including civil nuclear power’.

After Blair dropped that bombshell, his chief scientist, Sir David King, suddenly came out with guns blazing. Long a climate hero to environmentalists for his willingness to speak critically about US intransigence in the climate talks, King was now using every media opportunity afforded him to big-up the nuclear option.

Given these signals, it is widely believed that the current energy review is a fait accompli and that nuclear will be given the ‘green’ light. Even the usually diplomatic WWF lambasted the government for its handling of the review, accusing it of being ‘a smokescreen for the resurgence of nuclear power’.

Whispering green nothings

But is nuclear power really a solution to climate change? After all, the arguments against nuclear are as valid today as they were 20 years ago at the peak of the anti-nuclear movement. The technology is still extremely dangerous, relies on dwindling supplies of uranium and remains so costly that massive government (read taxpayer) subsidies are required. It is vulnerable to terrorism, can feed weapons proliferation and produces volumes of toxic waste with no satisfactory storage solution.

The nuclear process employs energy-intensive industries dependent on vast quantities of fossil fuels. It requires uranium mining, enrichment and transport across the globe, the construction and decommissioning of facilities, and the processing, transport and storage of radioactive wastes. All these consume huge amounts of carbon-based energy such as oil and coal. Nuclear power simply can’t hold a candle to renewable energy technologies such as windmills and photovoltaic panels with their minimal reliance on fossil fuel use and ‘one-off’ environmental costs.

The Öko Institut in Germany released a 10-year study back in 1997 that found that in a full life-cycle comparison of various energy technologies, nuclear had nearly twice the carbon dioxide equivalent of wind power – even factoring-in the phenomenal difference in power output (kilowatts per hour). A more recent study factored-in the declining ratio of uranium to mined ore in rapidly dwindling uranium sources and found that emissions increase as more mining, refining and transport is needed to compensate for poorer quality ore. The report, by Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen and Philip Smith, concluded that the overall emissions needed for nuclear power are five times higher than even the Öko Institut estimate. Every new nuclear power station creates a further demand for uranium and its attendant infrastructure, which in turn spirals fossil-based energy demand upwards.

Even if we ignored the life-cycle analysis, how many new nuclear plants would we need? According to a 2002 report by Arjun Makhijani of the US-based Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), to produce a noticeable reduction in global carbon dioxide emissions, it would be necessary to build approximately 2,000 large new nuclear reactors, each with 1,000-megawatt capacity.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change outlines a scenario whereby 3,000 nuclear reactors would be needed by the year 2100. This would mean an average of 75 new nuclear reactor builds each year for 100 years. The US National Commission on Energy estimates that its domestic nuclear-power capacity alone would need to double and possibly triple over the next 30-50 years. This would bring the US total to about 300-400 new reactors, including replacements for those reaching retirement age. All this keeping in mind that it takes on average 10-15 years to build a nuclear power station in the first place.

Nor do the difficulties stop there. A growing number of studies tell us that, if we were to replace outright all fossil-fuel generated electricity with nuclear, there would be enough economically viable uranium to fuel the reactors for only three to four years. Without uranium, conventional reactors stop reacting.

Assuming all these challenges were overcome, what difference would a nuclear renaissance make to global greenhouse gas emissions? Very little, it seems. Nuclear power stations serve one major useful purpose and that is to produce electricity. The percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions from world electricity production is only a small proportion of all polluting sources – about 16 per cent by International Energy Agency estimates.

This, then, is the maximum theoretical contribution that nuclear could make to our global emissions footprint assuming a complete and total embrace of the atom for our electricity needs. Transport, domestic heating, mining, manufacturing and other sectors with heavy reliance on fossil fuels would continue to make up the lion’s share of the global economy’s climate-damaging emissions. Nuclear power would make no difference to nearly 85 per cent of the world’s climate-spoiling emissions.

Winds of change

In contrast to the obsessive pursuit of some ultimate techno-fix, the real solutions are already here. While detractors will say that renewable energy technologies based on solar, tidal/wave, geothermal, micro-hydro and wind resources can never meet demand sufficiently, the truth is that they’ve never really been given a chance. While the nuclear and fossil fuel industries have benefited from decades of exceedingly generous levels of subsidies, renewables have barely had a look-in.

Each year billions in direct and indirect subsidies are dished out to nuclear and fossil fuel energy companies. In 2004 alone, the government spent upwards of £3 billion to prop-up the bankrupt nuclear-power firm British Energy. If, however, we were to stop subsidising fossil fuels and nuclear and shift resources into renewables, the prospects of meeting demand would become far more achievable.

Despite the odds, renewables have already beaten nuclear in the energy game. According to the US-based Rocky Mountain Institute, in 2004 alone, small-scale renewables added 5.9 times as much net generating capacity and 2.9 times as much electricity production as nuclear power. By 2010, renewable energy is projected to outstrip nuclear power’s energy output by 43 per cent globally.

If there is anything we can learn from history, it is that the nuclear industry can spin a good yarn. I’m sure most of us would like to believe in the magic techno-fix that can deliver limitless supplies of energy cheaply, safely and with marginal environmental impacts. This is what pro-nuclear supporters would like us to believe, but sadly the reality is that there is no such solution.

Eliminating subsidies for fossil fuels and boosting renewables is only part of the answer. Larger and more fundamental questions about the way we live, the nature of our economic system and how we build meaningful movements for change remain. One thing is certain, however – Captain Atom is not going to save the day.This article was adapted from ‘Nuclear is the New Black’, which appeared in New Internationalist No 382, October 2005.

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