One of the many decisions the Government will stall until after the General Election is whether or not to extend the life of the UK's nuclear power stations. One of the biggest, Dungeness B in Kent, is likely to close in the next two years without a decision in the next few months over the direction of UK energy policy. The survival of the nuclear industry is not dependent on its ability to remain financially viable. Far from it: British Energy, which operates half of the UK's nuclear power plants, has just completed a £5bn government-backed rescue plan and announced losses of £234m in the six months to the end of September 2004. No, the main excuse for an expansion of nuclear power is climate change. As an environmentalist, I want to state my opposition to the nuclear option in advance, rather than apologise afterwards.
The environmental excuse is that nuclear power stations produce less greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuel-powered stations, making them the best option for filling the gap between the winding down of fossil fuels and the revving up of renewables. This argument was given a boost in Channel 4's War on Terra series in January, when Marcel Theroux checked out whether nuclear power was the answer to averting environmental catastrophe. His most choice interviewee was environmental thinker James Lovelock, who argued forcefully and passionately that nuclear power, despite its risks and costs, is a better option than carrying on with fossil fuels and the inevitably ensuing climate catastrophe. A few weeks after the programme, a poll on the environment section of Channel 4's website showed 67 per cent in favour of the question "should we adopt nuclear power as our main source of energy?" and 33 per cent against.
While the programme's argument was convincing (and almost convinced at least one peace campaigner with whom I"ve spoken since), its approach is akin to accepting detention without trial and an end to jury trials as useful steps in tackling terrorism: it takes a symptom in isolation without addressing the actual problem, and leads to a world that isn"t necessarily a better place in which to live.
There should be no argument that the end of the fossil fuel age is nigh. Nuclear power, however, is not a logical next step. It is still an unsafe and environmentally destructive technology. According to Greenpeace - environmentalists who have, thankfully, maintained their opposition to nuclear power - the production, transport, storage and reprocessing of highly radioactive nuclear materials causes long-term dangers to human health, the environment, and global security. And when the fossil fuels needed to build uranium mines, reactors and waste storage facilities are considered; alongside the resources used in transporting materials within the full nuclear cycle and decommissioning reactors, greenhouse gas emissions from nuclear power are far from nil.
Under pressure from the US (oh yes), Tony Blair claims he has -fought long and hard & to make sure that the nuclear option is not closed off". The possibility of a fresh round of nuclear stations has been kept open at his personal insistence. Even if the Tories formed the next government, their position is unlikely to be different: a December article on the Corporate Watch website recounted how research into renewable energy programmes which promised abundant and cheap energy from wave and tidal power was scrapped by the Conservative government in the eighties, when the projects began to threaten investment in the nuclear sector.
As George Monbiot has pointed out, the government will not spend twice on alternatives to fossil fuels: it will either invest massively in nuclear generation or invest massively in energy-saving and alternative power. The nuclear option is often referred to as a final stage - an option that isn"t taken lightly but becomes inevitable. While this is a limited argument in general it is particularly inappropriate here, for there are many actions that can be taken now to reduce emissions in an effective way. Research from the Rocky Mountain Institute, for example, has shown that seven times as much carbon can be saved through electricity efficiencies as through investing in nuclear power.
At best, the nuclear option for tackling the climate crisis is a red herring. At worst, through the way in which it drains resources, undermines environmental security and illustrates our lack of imagination when it comes to dealing with a crisis, the nuclear option is an absolute tragedy.