Sir David King: 'Chernobyl created a negative view of nuclear technology. I don't think it's the right view'

The Monday Interview: Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When Professor Sir David King became the Government's chief scientific adviser in October 2000 he did not have to wait long for his baptism of fire. Just four months into the job, he found himself embroiled in the political turmoil caused by Britain's worst outbreak of foot- and-mouth disease.

For a man used to the relative quiet of academia - he is professor of chemistry at Cambridge University - Sir David had to contend with the glare of publicity as well as the heavy burden of providing the scientific advice on which the Government, and the Prime Minister, would be judged.

After convening a panel of experts, Sir David provided the scientific rationale for the ruthless culling of livestock on affected farms and ones with common boundaries. It was, and still is, a deeply unpopular decision, especially when some commentators were calling for vaccination rather than slaughter. Even today there are those who say the Government should have used vaccines rather than culling, a strategy vehemently defended by Sir David who insists many people still do not understand why Britain had no choice but to kill and burn or bury thousands of animals.

"The option to vaccinate but not to subsequently kill the animals was actually not with us," Sir David says. "The Dutch government used vaccination and we did not; as a result the Dutch government had to slaughter vaccinated animals subsequently before they could begin exporting again."

The issue typifies the problems faced by science advisers having to grapple with the complexities of such an issue with major political ramifications. Vaccines against foot-and-mouth exist, but under international rules outside the Government's control, a country that uses vaccines cannot claim to be free of foot-and-mouth, which incurs heavy financial penalties in terms of exports.

The reason for not going down the vaccine route is that there is as yet no validated test to distinguish between a healthy but vaccinated animal with antibodies to the virus and an animal that is infected but shows no obvious clinical symptoms. Such facts are often overlooked, generating further misconceptions. "We need a validated test," Sir David says. "My worry is that if there were an epidemic tomorrow, the British public might be expecting vaccination to be used."

Another misconception was that vastly more cattle and sheep were killed during the epidemic than in normal years, he says. "In the year of the epidemic something like 17 million animals were culled or slaughtered. The average slaughtered in a given year was between 19 and 20 million. So we actually culled or slaughtered fewer animals than we would have slaughtered in a normal year.

"Why was that? Well something like five or six million were probably slaughtered in connection with the epidemic. That means fewer animals were going to abattoirs for food production and we were importing meat at that time.

"It's not really an issue of saving animals, it's saving hardship for farmers that we really should be focusing on. Very few people were predicting that we would emerge with a foot-and-mouth free international status in less than a few years. On 20 January 2002, we regained our FMD-free status. It was extremely rapid for the world's biggest epidemic. I think actually it was a major victory for science."

As head of the Office of Science and Technology, housed in the Department of Trade and Industry, Sir David oils the machinery of public science funding and co-ordinates the efforts of all the chief scientists within government departments. One responsibility is to oversee the Government's Foresight initiative which scans the horizon for future problems, such as the risk of severe flooding in the coming century.

But it is his interest and deep concern over climate change and global warming that has given Sir David his highest profile. Last year, in an article for the American journal Science, which was evidently directed at the Bush administration, Sir David said climate change was a bigger threat than international terrorism. He based his argument on the exceptional summer heatwave of 2003, widely attributed to climate change, when thousands of Europeans died. This was far more than in any one terrorist atrocity.

It was not the sort of message the White House wanted to hear after declaring a global war on terror and at the same time abandoning the Kyoto treaty on limiting man-made emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. Since then, Sir David has been targeted by American lobbyists wanting to cast doubt on his claims and even his scientific credentials.

Last November, for instance, Myron Ebell, from a Washington think-tank called the Competitive Enterprise Institute, launched a personal attack on Sir David in an interview with Radio 4's Today programme. "We have people who know nothing about climate science, like Sir David King, who are alarmist and continually promote this ridiculous claim," said Mr Ebell, who was introduced as a former adviser to the White House. "Sir David has no expertise in climate science."

Sir David, visibly irritated at the mention of Mr Ebell, says: "Do you know who he is and who pays for him? He works for this right-wing, so-called think-tank [but] I don't think there is much thinking going on. He's a lobbyist; he's never been an adviser to the White House. The White House has issued a statement denying he was ever an adviser. I believe Radio 4 fell for it when Myron Ebell said that he was an adviser to the President. There is no truth in that statement."

He is equally dismissive of Michael Crichton, the science fiction author whose latest novel suggests concerns over global warming amount to alarmist misinformation. "The man is a fiction writer and this is another example of fiction at work," Sir David says. "There is no veracity in that book whatsoever."

The criticisms of Bjorn Lomborg, the Danish economist and global warming sceptic, are a different matter. Lomborg says climate change may be happening but there is nothing we can do about it so we should concentrate on trying to minimise its impacts, especially in the developing world.

Sir David says this is an understandable view of econo-mists who do not look beyond the next 30 years. "The impacts of climate change over the next 30 years are virtually independent of what we do about carbon dioxide emissions and the reason for this is that Earth's system is very slow to respond, there is a very large inertia in this enormous mass, so it takes time.

"Over the next 30 years if we stop carbon dioxide levels at exactly where they are now you will not get a different forward run over the next 30 years. But if you look forward, as we did with flood and coastal defences, to 2080 then you see the impacts are critically dependent on what action we take now.

"The economists are right if we are concerned only about ourselves and possibly our children, but when you start talking about grandchildren then it all goes pear-shaped."

The issue is even more pressing for developing countries which will bear the brunt of the environmental changes caused by global warming, and this is on top of their other serious problems of poverty and overpopulation. "It's been said to me that spending money on climate change is less productive than spending money on developing countries. We have to do both," Sir David says. Many scientists, including James Lovelock, the intellectual guru of the environmental movement, believe governments should build nuclear power stations because present renewable energy technology cannot replace the energy generated by burning fossil fuel. Britain's White Paper on energy has not ruled out building nuclear power stations. Last year, Sir David said we have to make a decision on whether to replace existing nuclear power stations - all but one of which will be shut by 2020 - within the next five years.

"It would be foolhardy to say we will never have the need for nuclear new build and a decision will have to be made by looking at how we are progressing on energy-efficiency gains and also the transport sector. We're going to have to re-evaluate the situation and that will be the subject if needed of a further White Paper," he says.

When pressed about whether we need to make a decision now rather than, say, after a general election, Sir David says: "If you were an alien arriving from Mars and you saw we had global warming you'd say these people are going to burn up their planet. Then they'd say, 'It's all right. They've discovered nuclear fission technology, they can cut down their CO2 production'.

"The problem with that is twofold. One is, what do we do with nuclear waste? And second, where does public acceptability stand? Chernobyl has created in the minds of many a very negative view of nuclear technology. I don't think it's the right view; the number of deaths from coal production vastly exceeds the number from all accidents in nuclear power production.

"I think responsible government has to see whether we can manage to work without nuclear power, and that's precisely what we are doing."


Born 1939, in South Africa

Education Chemistry degree and PhD at Witwatersrand University; ScD at East Anglia University; ScD at Cambridge

Career 1963 Shell scholar, Imperial College

1966 Lecturer in chemical physics, East Anglia

1974 Brunner professor of chemistry, Liverpool

1988 Professor of physical chemistry, Cambridge

1993 Head of chemistry department, Cambridge

1995 Master of Downing College, Cambridge

2000 Chief scientific adviser

2003 Knighted