Wasting Time And Energy

2nd February 2008

With rising carbon emissions, high energy prices and geopolitical problems, the government has just given the green light to a new generation of nuclear power stations. Jack Johnson suggests, however, that atomic energy is not all it is cracked up to be.

In January, John Hutton (Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform) told MPs that he was inviting energy companies to bring forward plans to build and operate new nuclear power plants. He justified his decision with these words: “Giving the go ahead that new nuclear power should play a role in providing the UK with clean, secure and affordable energy is in our country’s vital long term interest”.

The government now accepts there is no longer a steady and ‘safe’ supply of gas and oil from Russia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. This is not only due to tension between Putin’s Kremlin, its former Communist satellites and the West, but also because of the escalating violence and conflict resulting from US-led invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To complicate matters even further, we are witnessing a sharp decline in the amount of fossil fuels which – under the law of supply and demand – has caused huge increases in the cost of oil and gas. These added inflationary costs have put more strain on consumer bills – gas has already seen a 15 per cent price hike this year – making the cost of living more expensive for Joe Public.

In the light of the current energy problems, one might assume that the government is right to support a supposedly ‘clean’ form of energy such as nuclear power. However, although so-called environmentalists like independent scientist James Lovelock say that, unlike fossil fuels, nuclear power ‘does not cause global warming’, this has been proved to be incorrect.

A recent report by senior Dutch scientist Jan Willem Storm van Leeuwen, Nuclear power – the energy balance: energy insecurity and greenhouse gases, suggests that the ‘nuclear system cannot generate net useful energy and will produce more carbon dioxide than a fossil-fuelled power station (CO2 trap)’. It continues: ‘Beyond the coal ceiling more uranium ore [dense metal used to fuel nuclear power plants] has to be processed each year to feed one nuclear power plant than the annual coal tonnage of coal consumed by a coal-fired power plant to generate the same amount of electricity’.

The truth is that the government appears so blindly committed to nuclear power that it has even sought to marginalise the views and concerns of the public. In February 2007, in a case brought by environmentalist action group Greenpeace, a High Court judge ruled that the former Blair regime had staged a 12-week public consultation on nuclear power that was ‘seriously flawed’ and ‘manifestly inadequate and unfair’ after it used ‘misleading’ information to sway participants. He ordered that the process be repeated. This was no better, however. Channel 4 News reported that twenty ‘senior academics’ thought that the whole process was ‘deliberately skewed’ and participants were ‘misled’.

In any case, according to John Sauver of Greenpeace, even if Britain built ten new reactors, nuclear power would deliver only a 4 per cent cut in carbon emissions sometime after 2025 – which the government admits is too little too late. Moreover (a key point), most of the gas we use is for heating, hot water and for industrial purposes, while oil is virtually all used for transport – therefore nuclear power, which supplies only electricity, cannot replace these finite fossil fuels.

Though John Hutton has already insisted there would be no nuclear energy subsidies from the UK government, the public will still have to pick up indirect costs. For instance, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority suggests that it will cost £73 billion to clear up existing power stations, with further costs leading to a bill of £100 billion. And what happens to radioactive waste, the nuclear power by-product that lasts for tens of thousands of years? Well, instead of flushing it into the Irish Sea, the Scottish government proposes to store it underground near Scotland's nuclear power stations and not at Sellafield in Cumbria – a move that some would consider odd, as the SNP itself is opposed to a new generation of nuclear power stations.

The Brown administration continues to promote nuclear power without properly consulting the public or even considering ‘clean, secure and affordable’ forms of energy like solar, wind and wave. Nuclear power is not only dangerous and unstable, but it cannot replace fossil fuels (unless all planes, cars, buses, ovens and fires are eventually powered by electricity) – or reduce CO2 emissions without putting excess strain on the public purse.

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