Scientist's plea to use nuclear energy starts new climate change debate by green groups

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A former Labour energy minister and the nuclear industry both welcomed the call by the scientist James Lovelock yesterday for a massive expansion of the nuclear industry to combat global warming.

They also forecast that Professor Lovelock's dramatic call, in yesterday's Independent, would force more environmentalists to consider whether nuclear power really posed a greater threat to humanity than climate change - and that they too would eventually agree with the celebrated scientist.

Professor Lovelock's radical suggestion provoked widespread debate yesterday, with both Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace rejecting his claims.

However Brian Wilson, who stood down as energy minister last year to become the Prime Minister's special representative on overseas trade, said Professor Lovelock had had the courage to address the question of global warming honestly. "I hope that many others will follow him in questioning the basis of their hostility to nuclear power in the age of global warming."

Mr Wilson said it was "a self-evident nonsense" for the UK to run down its nuclear capacity at the same time that there was an unprecedented emphasis on the need to reduce carbon emissions.

"Nuclear power is our only significant source of non-carbon electricity. It is the bird in the hand yet the Green lobby wants to shoot it."

At the Nuclear Industry Association, which lobbies in favour of nuclear power, Simon James said: "It's self-evident to us that nuclear power can deliver large amounts of energy without producing the carbon dioxide that contributes to global warming.

"We believe we are winning the argument. Increasingly people are looking at this and saying 'Hang on, if we're serious about global warming we need to do something serious about converting large amounts of energy to non-carbon-producing sources.

"Environmentalists are seeing this. I wouldn't be at all surprised if this article means more environmentalists come out backing Professor Lovelock," Mr James said.

As the creator of the Gaia hypothesis - which suggests that the Earth acts as a single organism - Professor Lovelock, 84, has a mythic place in the Green movement.

But in yesterday's Independent he argued that a massive expansion of nuclear power as the world's main energy source is necessary to prevent climate change overwhelming civilisation in the next 50 years.

Some environmentalists see that as a dramatic volte-face, because nuclear fission produces radioactive waste that remains dangerous for thousands of years and requires special storage and disposal. Environmental groups have thus lobbied - and frequently acted - against nuclear power wherever possible.

However, a growing number of scientific bodies, including most recently the Royal Academy of Engineering, have concluded that nuclear power does represent the best compromise between risk and power output, given the world's growing demand for energy.

In his article calling for a fresh look at nuclear power, Professor Lovelock considers - and rejects - other options for generating power and criticises the Green movement's rejection of it. He also accuses the group of forgetting the lesson of the Gaia concept.

"Every year that we continue burning carbon makes it worse for our descendants and for civilisation ... The Green lobbies, which should have given priority to global warming, seem more concerned about threats to people than with threats to Earth, not noticing that we are part of the Earth and wholly dependent upon its well-being."

Public attention to global warming and climate change has been heightened by Sir David King, the Government's chief scientist, who has repeatedly said that global warming poses a greater threat to the world than terrorism.

A new Hollywood blockbuster, The Day After Tomorrow, also uses dramatic effects of global warming as the essence of its plot - a move that environmentalists have said should raise the importance of the topic in people's consciousness.