Against The Grain: It's hard to see why nuclear is the favoured route'

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The Independent Online

Dr Paul Dorfman is Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust Research Fellow and Senior Research Fellow at Warwick University. He argues that government policy on nuclear power is wrong.

The two core arguments made by the nuclear industry are security of supply and global warming. Let's take global warming first. If we were to rebuild our entire nuclear stock we would mitigate only 4 per cent of our CO2 emissions, so how can it be about global warming? If you're serious about CO2, then get serious about transport, or other forms of energy.

In terms of supply, the fear is that Russia will turn off the gas. Unfortunately, half our gas is directed to domestic heating and is far from readily replaceable by electricity from nuclear supply. Another percentage goes into industry, again not readily amenable to replacement. So maybe one-quarter of our gas is potentially replaceable.

On top of this, we're already getting a large gas pipeline from Norway, a friendly country. And soon we could be asking: where do we get our uranium from? If there's a large demand, we will run out in a matter of decades.

Once we go down the nuclear route we might not be able to get out of it, so you have to look at the risks. Old nuclear facilities and new-builds are by the coast because they need large cooling facilities, and we're seeing waste stores alongside plants. With global warming, these nuclear facilities will be subject to floods and storms, and will need to be defended or replaced.

And the design that we're probably looking at is a very large piece of kit, with 5.5 times the radiological inventory of Chernobyl. If there's a mishap, there is the potential for great problems. And it is unproven; one is being built in Finland and one in France, but they have yet to pass European regulatory approval.

In terms of health, our fundamental understanding about radiation biology and radiation epidemiology is subject to large elements of uncertainty. And a very rigorous study by the German government last year, reported in the BMJ (British Medical Journal), shows a significant enhancement of leukaemia in children near to 16 West German nuclear reactors. And nobody wants to talk about these reactors' vulnerability to attack, but it can't be ignored.

The "no alternative to nuclear" argument is poor thinking. There is a lot we can do instead of nuclear power, with wind, wave and barrage sources and demand-side management.

So it's difficult to see why the Government made the decision to favour nuclear power. It's intriguing: one wonders what advice was taken to go down this route.