Leading article: This costly, dangerous and expensive distraction

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is quite understandable that the expansion of nuclear power has once again become a subject of debate in this country. Few now doubt the seriousness of the threat posed by global warming. And it is increasingly clear that unless we develop alternatives to fossil fuels the situation will continue to deteriorate. In these circumstances, it is no surprise that some are urging the Government to commission a new generation of nuclear power stations.

It is true that nuclear power is our only large-scale source of electricity that does not burn fossil fuels. And Tony Blair is justified in today launching a review of the merits of expanding our use of nuclear power. But this newspaper remains far from convinced that the nuclear option is the right way forward for Britain.

Some of the arguments against this form of energy are well rehearsed. But they are no less powerful for being familiar. Nuclear power stations are potentially dangerous in a way that coal- and gas-fired power stations have never been. The risk of a reactor leak - and the subsequent release of harmful radiation into the atmosphere - remains unacceptably high. The accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl should not be forgotten. Despite the impression given by nuclear industry lobbyists, human error can never be wholly eliminated. Nor should the threat of terrorists targeting power stations be discounted. There is also the legacy problem. Nuclear waste remains dangerous for some 240,000 years. Keeping it safely stored will be an immense burden on future generations.

It is also worth remembering that nuclear power is not a cheap option. The British nuclear industry has always required hefty government subsidies. This is likely to continue. A leaked memo from Sir David King, the Government's chief scientific adviser, suggests that a levy on consumer utility bills might be needed to finance fresh nuclear plants.

And one of the increasingly powerful arguments against nuclear power is that it is not likely to curtail the degradation of our environment greatly. Huge amounts of carbon dioxide are produced from the processing of the uranium that fuels nuclear power stations. The forthcoming nuclear review should spell all this out. But the real danger is that Mr Blair has already made his mind up. The Prime Minister is said to be "convinced" of the need for an expansion in nuclear power. We know from bitter experience where this Prime Minister's dogmatism can lead.

And there are grounds for suspicion about Mr Blair's enthusiasm for the nuclear option. Recent weeks have revealed the confusion at the heart of the Government's energy policy. Despite Mr Blair's vaunted green ambitions, the Government is on course to miss its target of substantially cutting emissions by 2010. In addition, Britain's North Sea gas is rapidly running out and pipelines to import more from abroad have not yet been laid. There are predictions of power cuts this winter, as strain is put on the national grid by unusually cold weather. This all points to a major failure of planning.

Now - lo and behold - the nuclear solution is suddenly being hailed as the solution to all of the Government's energy problems. We are told by various sources that it will magically meet Britain's power requirements, and that it will also substantially cut our emissions. It is all a little too convenient. Nuclear power smacks of a short-term political fix.

The more we learn about the financial and environmental costs, the less attractive nuclear power appears as an alternative source of energy. The Government should be ploughing resources into renewables and incentives to energy conservation. Nuclear power has always been - and remains - a dangerous distraction.

Comments