Why the planet needs nuclear energyHugh Montefiore
- 23 October 2004
Earth is hotting up, faster than ever before. Here, the former Bishop of Birmingham and a committed environmentalist explains why global warming has changed his mind about the need for nuclear power
THE dangers of global warming are greater than any other facing the planet. The rise in ocean levels, melting ice fields and the death in Europe of 25,000 from last year's heatwave are pointers to what may lie ahead, and the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser has warned us that future climate change is a worse threat than terrorism. Two weeks ago new research by American scientist Charles Keeling revealed an unexplained and unprecedented rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere two years running - a rise which, as The Tablet noted (9 October 2004), meant that the rate of global warming has speeded up even faster than we had all realised. It suggested that the Earth's natural systems can no longer absorb as much CO2 as in the past.
As a theologian I believe that we have a duty to play our full part in safeguarding the future of our planet, and I have been a committed environmentalist for many years. It is because of this commitment and the graveness of the consequences of global warming for the planet that I have now come to the conclusion that the solution is to make more use of nuclear energy. This belief, and my wish to make it clear in this article, has led me to sever my ties with the campaign group Friends of the Earth. I have been a trustee of Friends of the Earth for 20 years and when I told my fellow trustees that I wished to write for The Tablet on nuclear energy, I was told that this is not compatible with being a trustee. I have therefore resigned because no alternative was open to me. The future of the planet is more important than membership of Friends of the Earth.
The Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have told us that a 60 per cent reduction of global warming gas emissions by 2050 has to be achieved if we are to keep the planet comfortable for life. But how are we to do this? As a first step towards this goal, our Government has set itself the target of 10 per cent of electricity from "renewables" by 2010, a target, incidentally, endorsed by the Conservative leader Michael Howard who dislikes the main means by which it is hoped to achieve this - literally thousands more highly subsidised wind turbines that will scar the landscape and coastline, to say nothing of the problems caused to radar.
At present 20 per cent of our electricity comes from nuclear reactors. But given that the Government has decided not to replace our nuclear reactors when they become obsolete, and as the chairman of the British Wind Energy Association is only confident of wind contributing 5.5 per cent of the 10 per cent required from renewables, it seems very unlikely that the Government's 2010 target will be reached - especially as steps need to be taken to ensure household and commercial economies of energy or the reduction of carbon dioxide emitted from motor vehicles.
This needs to be rigorously followed up if the 60 per cent reduction of global warming gases is to be achieved in time. So our Government has further set itself the "aspiration" of 20 per cent of electricity from renewables by 2020. Yet there seems to be little idea how this second target can be achieved. Presumably by then there will be greater household and commercial economies, and long before then cheap air travel will surely be stopped by a tax imposed on aircraft fuel. No doubt it is hoped that fresh forms of renewable energy will by then come on stream. Biomass is one kind, the burning of straw and wood (and chicken litters but not chicken feathers!) But carbon dioxide would be emitted in bringing great amounts of biomass long distances to be burnt. Solar power is unlikely to bring large-scale returns at Britain's latitude. As for wave power and marine technologies and nuclear fusion, they are nowhere near commercial viability and the chief executive of the Renewable Power Association has said that there is no coherent long-term development programme.
Clean coal technology with the reduction of carbon is certainly attractive, but it is very far from being commercially viable. There would be problems with yet more installation of wind turbines, which would mean further traditional sources of electricity would then be required as back-up. It might be possible by 2010 for hydrogen to be available for transport, but the making of hydrogen involves carbon dioxide, unless electricity from renewables is used.
It is crucial if the world is to be saved from future catastrophe, that non-global warming sources of energy should be increasingly available after 2010. Petrol will begin to be in ever costlier and shorter supply, especially with the industrialisation of China, already producing 190,000 cars a month. By then oil supplies may even have peaked. Gas will become more expensive and huge supplies will have to be obtained from abroad. For security of supply as well as for the environment it will be essential to have other sources of energy.
This is why nuclear energy is the most viable alternative, but the problem is that it takes several years between a decision to build a nuclear reactor and its commercial operation. If we are to have more nuclear energy soon after 2010 we must plan now. The Government has said that it is keeping open the nuclear option, but the question remains: why aren't our nuclear reactors being replaced as they become obsolete? Nuclear energy, at present supplying 20 per cent of our electricity, provides a reliable, safe, cheap, almost limitless form of pollution-free energy. The Government says it is too expensive.
The capital involved in building reactors is certainly costly, but British Nuclear Fuels, backed by the Royal Academy of Engineering, insists that its generating costs are actually cheaper than wind turbines. British Nuclear Fuels further points out that research and development have virtually ceased. Only one university offers a postgraduate course, and those with the necessary skills are close to, or beyond the point of retirement. Is the nuclear option really being kept open?
The real reason why the Government has not taken up the nuclear option is because it lacks public acceptance, due to scare stories in the media and the stonewalling opposition of powerful environmental organisations. Most, if not all, of the objections do not stand up to objective assessment. The accidents at Three Mile Island in the United States and at Chernobyl in the Ukraine are usually cited as objections, without much consideration of what happened and what the results were. At Three Mile Island the additional radiation in the surrounding district was less than would be received in one day from natural sources, and no adverse medical effects have been proved.
Chernobyl was a terrible accident and parts of the area are still heavily contaminated. It was caused by an electro-chemical experiment that should never have been permitted, in which the reactor was made to run at a dangerously low level, the emergency core cooling circuit was disconnected and the emergency safety mechanism was switched off. Forty-two brave people died fighting to contain a fire in highly radioactive conditions: the proportion of deaths among those working in clean operations is no greater than would be expected through other causes. Cases of treatable thyroid cancer seem to have occurred only when children were treated with preventive iodide. Those sent to other countries were suffering not from radiation but malnutrition. Ill health was occasioned by mass evacuation. The amount of radiation in Europe depended on prevailing winds. In Britain the entire dose was 30 times less than the natural background. Yet the media claimed there would be 40,000 deaths worldwide!
Four hundred and forty-two reactors across the world produce 16 per cent of the world's electricity. Modern nuclear reactors are of vastly improved design, approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The permissible dose for reactor operatives is far less than the natural radiation in Cornwall! Eighty per cent of French electricity comes from nuclear energy.
A second objection concerns the danger of terrorist attack. Parliament has recently legislated for a civil nuclear constabulary, but there can be no absolute guarantee that any building anywhere is safe from kamikaze air attack.
Then there is the problem of nuclear waste. In Britain short-lived and intermediate wastes are safely contained in trenches of glacial clay compacted, containerised and capped with water-resistant clay. Long-lived wastes which last for thousands of years need more extensive treatment. The total amount of these since Britain began using nuclear energy is only the size of a ten-metre cube in volume. After cooling, the waste components need to be compacted into a vitrified solid, sealed in a metallic container, together with a metallic or ceramic "overpack", and placed in stable rock at least 300 metres deep together with a backfill to minimise any water movement. How safe is this? A former natural nuclear reactor has been found in Gabon which has remained undisturbed for thousands of years. There is minimal risk of danger to posterity.
The advantages far outweigh any objections, and I can see no practical way of meeting the world's needs without nuclear energy.
The predictions of the world's scientists are dire and the consequences for the planet are catastrophic. This is why I believe we must now consider nuclear energy. The subject is so important that it should be a matter of informed public debate.
Hugh Montefiore is the former Anglican Bishop of Birmingham.