Nuclear power is not the solution to the crisis of global warming

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The Independent Online

At the start of this week, the eminent scientist Professor James Lovelock provoked indignation among environmentalists by advocating a massive expansion of nuclear power. Writing in this newspaper, he argued that global warming was accelerating to such a degree that this was the only way to fend off catastrophe and protect our standard of living.

At the start of this week, the eminent scientist Professor James Lovelock provoked indignation among environmentalists by advocating a massive expansion of nuclear power. Writing in this newspaper, he argued that global warming was accelerating to such a degree that this was the only way to fend off catastrophe and protect our standard of living.

There are few now who do not accept that global warming is a real and urgent threat requiring an equally real and urgent response. There are few, too, who would deny that the Kyoto protocol is a significant first step towards an international approach, but only a first and very tentative step. The pressure on governments to do something is likely to increase as the dangers of climate change - albeit in spectacular and hyperbolic form - are brought home to a wider public in the disaster film The Day After Tomorrow.

The question is no longer whether something should be done about global warning, but what that something should be. And this is where we part company with the professor. He sees a straight choice between embracing nuclear power or staying with fossil fuels and destroying the planet. We disagree.

Nuclear power may not produce greenhouse gases, but it is unacceptable in almost every other respect: environmentally, economically and in terms of risk. It produces radioactive waste which is highly dangerous. If factored into the overall bill, the cost of disposing of the waste safely cancels out the cost benefits of cheap generation. And while France may generate more than 80 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power without mishap so far, no country with any alternative has the right to expose its population to the risk of a new Chernobyl - however small that risk might be.

Nor is it true that there are no alternatives. They include the rapid expansion of renewables: in this country we have wind, water and wave power in abundance. There simply has not been the political will to exploit it. At the same time, profligate energy consumption should be penalised much more heavily than it is. The Office of National Statistics reports that greenhouse gas emissions from transport have increased sharply, a finding the Government has tried to suppress. The current period of extremely low air fares is the ideal time to introduce a tax on airline fuel without unduly depressing air travel. The rise in petrol prices is already influencing car purchases, and it could have other benefits if it fosters investment in alternative, and cleaner, fuels.

Growing energy consumption in China and India is already pushing world energy and commodity prices higher. But only if the developed countries commit themselves to investing in clean energy sources and curbing their extravagance will China and other fast-developing countries see any reason to follow suit.

We hesitate to quarrel with such a hero of the environmental movement as Professor Lovelock and we respect his independence of mind. On the matter of nuclear power, however, we believe he was right the first time around.

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