The Greens need to think again about nuclear power

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We talk about the weather at the drop of a hat, but for once we are justified: it has been a remarkable autumn. More than that, an extreme one: the wettest ever, with heavier rainfall than any since records began in the 18th century. December, moreover, is likely to be one of the warmest on record, with strange consequences in the natural world, as we report today. Although neither of these facts can be directly linked to global warming, they do fit the predictions that scientists have been making about climate change, so now is perhaps a good time to think again about the options available to tackle this most pressing of worldwide problems.

We talk about the weather at the drop of a hat, but for once we are justified: it has been a remarkable autumn. More than that, an extreme one: the wettest ever, with heavier rainfall than any since records began in the 18th century. December, moreover, is likely to be one of the warmest on record, with strange consequences in the natural world, as we report today. Although neither of these facts can be directly linked to global warming, they do fit the predictions that scientists have been making about climate change, so now is perhaps a good time to think again about the options available to tackle this most pressing of worldwide problems.

The most publicised solution is the Kyoto Protocol, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But even if the negotiations to conclude it had not broken down so noisily in The Hague last month, the treaty would only have cut carbon dioxide emissions by 5.2 per cent below their 1990 levels. The scientific consensus is that, to achieve real climatic stability, the cut should be 60 per cent at least. Kyoto is not enough.

Clearly, we urgently need alternatives to burning fossil fuels to generate our electricity, which in Britain produces one-quarter of our carbon dioxide emissions. The green lobby says that renewable energy sources such as wind, waves and solar power can fulfil our needs: the total energy available from these sources is more than sufficient to power the world. But while that is true in total, the reality is that each is insufficient in some way. When the waves or the wind are too strong or too weak, you can't generate energy from them. And solar power is still too inefficient (as are the other two sources) to be the baseline for our national electricity grid.

In the month when the atomic reactor at Chernobyl is finally being shut down, 15 years after it exploded, it might seem perverse to raise the possibility that nuclear power might once again be the energy source of the future, as it seemed to be in the 1950s. Chernobyl was a symbol of everything that was wrong with the nuclear industry: inherently unsafe and capable of producing terrible damage over great distances. Yet nuclear power can deliver the baseline of our electricity supply without large CO 2 emissions, and as the effects of climate change become more apparent, and more intolerable, the calls for nuclear expansion will grow. It may be anathema to the greens, but this is a debate that is going to come, and it would be as well to start addressing it now.

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