In the environment debate there is little doubt that Greenpeace has been seen as the good guy and the nuclear industry as the bad. So the recent decision by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to rule against Greenpeace and in favour of the nuclear industry made many people sit up and think.
The advertisement in question - which featured a photograph of a baby with a grotesquely enlarged head - clearly overstepped the mark of the acceptable. The ASA's ruling was naturally welcomed by the nuclear industry as an important propaganda and psychological victory.
Greenpeace's decision to run a second, very defensive, advert in the Independent on the day after the ASA decision suggests that a fundamental shift may be about to take place in the environmental debate: Greenpeace and its green ilk being forced on to the defensive and the nuclear industry becoming more confident of winning the argument.
The problem thus far has been the reluctance of environmentalists, industrialists and even politicians to address the issues rationally. The role of industry and single-issue pressure groups here is crucial and their influence must not be underestimated (in 1990, for example, Greenpeace had more members than the Labour Party). Emotions have run high and facts have been in short supply. This has led to a number of bad decisions which have not protected the environment or raised the credibility of those concerned with its welfare.
The origins of this problem go back 20 years to the banning of DDT, a decision that marked the beginning of the modern environmental movement. A massive campaign against the perceived health risks of DDT forced the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to hold a seven-month hearing. The EPA examiner, having looked at the scientific evidence, recommended that DDT should not be banned.
However William Ruckelshaus, the EPA's administrator, overruled that decision for what he said were political rather than scientific reasons. American public opinion had been raised to such a fever pitch that it was felt that a decision based merely on the evidence was not possible.
The consequence, according to Professor JD Edwards of San Jose State University, was that 'an estimated 100 million people die every year as the direct result of the banning of DDT and other pesticides. These deaths are from malaria, from other insect-borne diseases, and from the results of reduced food crops'. The banning of DDT was an inauspicious omen for what was to become a sustained mass environmental movement.
It would be unfair, however, to cast the environmental movement completely as the bad guy. While it is perhaps inevitable that public opinion has more clout than the scientific community, the resulting mess cannot be blamed solely on the environmentalists. Industrialists and politicians are sometimes equally to blame for their failure to give leadership or to address the issues.
A classic example was the campaign to ban the use of lead in petrol. Initially the petrol companies dismissed the criticisms of lead in petrol and refused to meet the campaigns' leaders. It was not until the level of public outcry threatened to dent the profits of the companies that action was taken.
Unfortunately the action taken was the knee-jerk response to replace the lead in petrol with larger quantities of benzene. Benzene is arguably the major cause of childhood leukaemia and today cars are pumping 50,000 tons a year into the UK environment. Catalytic converters, which could neutralise the benzene, are not widely available and are not effective in cities. The result has been to replace one problem with what many experts consider to be a worse one.
At long last there are signs that industrialists and environmentalists are working together. A recent ruling in the US by the EPA, requiring that 15 per cent of reformulated petrol should be produced using ethanol, sparked this comment: 'The fossil fuel savings obtained by the use of ethanol from corn is largely cancelled by the greater use of fossil fuels in the actual growing and processing of corn to make ethanol.' That was the opinion not of the oil companies but of the influential green Environmental Defense Fund.
This new sense of realism on the environment is to be welcomed. It may be inconvenient or even unpopular, but the facts are on the side of the nuclear industry: namely, nuclear power is the clean energy.
During the summer there was much media coverage about the suffering caused to asthma suffers in our cities by car exhaust emissions. This brought home the fact that we are all affected by the environment in which we live. The environment is, after all, not just an issue for people who live in the countryside.
We can all agree about the need for Britain to reduce its levels of harmful emissions. Indeed, we are committed to meeting the targets set at the Rio Earth Summit regarding emissions of carbon dioxide - the major gas associated with global warming - and the targets set by the European Union for reducing emissions of sulphur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen, both sources of acid rain. What must be better understood is that nuclear power reactors produce none of these pollutants. This is in sharp contrast to fossil fuel power stations, which account for 70 per cent of Britain's sulphur dioxide emissions and 30 per cent of its carbon dioxide emissions. The nuclear industry is without question the good guy when it comes to tackling the problems of global warming and acid rain.
As people's strong feelings on the environment become more rooted in fact and science rather than gloom and doom, and as the nuclear industry becomes ever more self-confident and assertive, a new consensus will emerge. Nuclear energy will not only be a crucial part of that new consensus but will also play a critical role in shaping the West's sustainable development policies. The sooner the green movement accepts this, the better.
The author is director-general of the British Nuclear Industry Forum.Reuse content