A green light for nuclear

29 May 2009

Everyone should support the building of new nuclear power stations, to help tackle climate change. We must stop arguing about whether energy efficiency, renewables, carbon capture and storage or nuclear are ‘better’ to cut carbon emissions. We need all of them.

I have spent the last two decades arguing and campaigning against nuclear power, working for NGOs, think tanks and government. But the climate crisis is now so great that we must do everything we can, whatever the economic cost, to try to control it. Nuclear power is not zero carbon, but it is low carbon. So I now support an expansion of nuclear power.

However well we do on energy efficiency, there will be a massive global increase in demand for electricity. Surface transport can and should run on electricity, not oil – US president Barack Obama is taking and admirable lead here, and other governments are following. One sensible option for reducing emissions from the generation of heat is the ground source heat pump. The heat, absorbed from the sun, is renewable and zero-carbon, but the pump requires electricity. There will also be increasing demand for air conditioning as summers get hotter. We must therefore develop all low-carbon options.

Renewable energy is the most plentiful, sustainable and secure form of energy. But before we become more than 30 or 40% reliant on renewables, the problem of energy storage will have to be solved. Given this, and the need for such a massive expansion in capacity, I don’t think the world energy system can be 100% renewable until 2040 at the earliest. Therefore a bridge technology is needed.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) to reduce emissions from fossil fuel power stations, must be developed and demonstrated, since the technologies are not yet proven at large scale. And new nuclear power stations should also be built.

There are clearly risks associated with nuclear power, including radioactive waste and pollution. These are serious, and certainly cannot be ignored, but they are less serious than the risk of a six-degree rise in global temperatures.

Radioactive waste should be put underground, deep enough to be safe enough from attack or bombing, but also monitorable.

“I now support an expansion of nuclear power.”

There should be no reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. This is highly polluting, and economically wasteful. The UK should shut down the Sellafield Thermal Oxide Reprocessing Plant (THORP) and Mixed Oxide (MOx) plant. And since reprocessing creates plutonium, it is also a proliferation risk.

My view has always been that the main risk of nuclear power generation is weapons proliferation. Every state that has nuclear bombs has acquired them by developing nuclear power first – except Israel, which purchased its weapons. So the most serious question which nuclear supporters need to answer is: ‘if nuclear power is appropriate for the developed world, is it appropriate for all countries? Iran? North Korea? Somalia?’

The existing nuclear powers should meet their obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which requires nuclear states to negotiate away their own nuclear weapons, as a ‘bargain’ with those states that promise not to acquire them. President Obama has promised to begin international negotiations for a nuclear weapons free world. On 5 April he also called for a global ban on producing fissile material, and the establishment of an international ‘fuel bank’ to supply and monitor enriched uranium for civil nuclear power generation. This is in line with the Kissinger/Nunn initiative. The enormous amount of money wasted on nuclear weapons – which Kissinger has described as ‘obsolete’ – should be invested instead in developing a low carbon economy. For the UK, abandoning the Trident submarine ‘upgrade’ (in reality a massive expansion) would release around GBP70 billion for investment. This should be used to support energy efficiency (the best way to create tens of thousands of new jobs quickly), renewables, carbon capture and storage, and nuclear power.

The new nuclear power station being constructed in Finland is already running well over budget, and behind time. The nuclear industry must improve its construction performance. Bottlenecks in manufacturing the components must be addressed. Delays through the planning system are inevitable, but can be reduced if people who have previously opposed nuclear power now speak out in favour. That’s why I decided to do so, rather than simply keeping quiet.

The nuclear industry must also strive to keep costs down, though clearly not taking any risks with safety. But nuclear generation, particularly if full decommissioning and waste management costs are taken into account, is not cheap, and probably will not be able to expand without public subsidy. In the UK, the boast from the 1950s that nuclear power would mean electricity ‘too cheap top metre’ is widely remembered, and used by opponents as an example of why the nuclear industry should never be trusted.

Lack of trust is a major problem for the industry. When I explained my new views, some of my environmentalist friends responded, “the technology may be okay, but I don’t trust the industry. And they certainly don’t need our help.” So to try to win greater public trust, the nuclear industry should be more open and honest about the full economics of nuclear power, and also about the electricity and pollution performance of existing plants. And it should stop reprocessing without any delay.

There is far too much talk, from campaign groups and in the media, about what we should be against. There should be much more about what we should favour. Controlling climate change will not only make us safer; it could also make us happier, healthier and richer. I have co-founded a website called climate-answers, to try to spread this message.

Author Info:

By Stephen Tindale, stephentindale@climateanswers.info. He was Executive Director of Greenpeace UK from 2001 to 2006.

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