Last summer, the UK government's Energy Review looked at the big picture surrounding energy needs, and wisely called for a resurgence in nuclear power generation. Meanwhile, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and other activist groups have adopted policies that specifically exclude nuclear from the UK's future energy supply. While they talk about "transitioning to a low-carbon system", they dismiss nuclear, the only energy source capable of actually delivering us from an increasing use of fossil fuels and their resulting carbon emissions.
As a lifelong environmentalist, a co-founder and 15-year leader of Greenpeace who finds himself critical of many activist groups today, I am perplexed by this logical inconsistency. It is simply not credible to claim that wind and solar energy can replace coal and natural gas.
Wind and solar are by nature intermittent, and therefore not capable of delivering the baseload power required for an energy grid. In fact wind and solar must be backed up with baseload energy so there is power when the wind stops blowing and the sun is not shining. Simply put, the only choice is between fossil fuel and nuclear.
I choose nuclear for clear and compelling environmental reasons. Worldwide, 442 operating nuclear plants avoid the release of nearly 3 billion tons of CO2 emissions annually - the equivalent of the exhaust from more than 428 million cars. In the UK alone, 23 nuclear reactors avoid the release of approximately 150 million tons of CO2 each year, while quietly providing 20 percent of its electricity.
The UK is the EU's largest, and the world's third-largest natural gas consumer, and in 1994 became a net-importer of natural gas. The risk of building an energy infrastructure that depends on gas from Russia and the Middle East is worth considering. The twin policy drivers of climate change and energy security compliment each other in directing us towards an aggressive programme of replacing fossil fuels with a combination of renewable energy and nuclear.
I am not an alarmist on the subject of climate change. But I do believe that it would be very wise to adopt a realistic program to reduce CO2 emissions. Nuclear energy has an impressive operational record, yet unease continues to surround this proven source of clean and safe power. Each concern deserves careful consideration.
Concern: nuclear energy is not safe. Fact: nuclear energy is one of the safest industrial sectors worldwide. Modern nuclear power plants follow strict government regulations, which mandate continuous employee training and redundant safety features. By contrast, the Soviet-designed Chernobyl reactor was an accident waiting to happen; it had no containment structure, and its operators literally blew it up. While tragic, the number of deaths from Chernobyl confirmed last year by the United Nations was, at 56, well below initial reports. The Three Mile Island accident in the US, on the other hand, was a safety success story. The containment structure functioned as designed, and prevented radioactive material from escaping at harmful levels, resulting in no deaths or injuries. In the last 35 years, no one has died of a radiation-related accident in the UK civilian nuclear reactor programme.
Concern: nuclear energy is expensive. Fact: nuclear reactors deliver electricity on par with the cost of coal and hydro, and cheaper than natural gas, wind or solar.
Concern: nuclear waste will be dangerous for thousands of years. Fact: spent fuel, which contains 95 per cent of its original energy, is being safely stored at nuclear power plants around the world, and will be re-used by future generations for electricity. Within 40 years, spent fuel has less than 1000th the radioactivity it had when it was removed from the reactor.
Concern: nuclear reactors are vulnerable to terrorist attack. Fact: even an airliner could not penetrate the five-foot-thick reinforced concrete containment structure, which protects contents from the outside as well as from the inside.
Concern: nuclear energy is directly linked to nuclear weapons proliferation. Fact: it is not necessary to have a nuclear reactor in order to produce enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb. Uranium can be enriched by using new centrifuge technology; that is what Iran is suspected of doing at present. Nuclear proliferation must be addressed as a separate issue from nuclear power generation.
The only significant obstacle facing a greater reliance on nuclear energy is the wrongheaded opposition by activist groups like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace. These groups use misinformation to scare the public into believing nuclear energy is unsafe. They want fossil fuel power plants and nuclear plants phased out, falsely claiming that conservation, efficiency and renewables alone will provide sufficient energy to power the UK's cities and manufacturing sectors.
Once people see nuclear energy for what it truly is - safe, reliable baseload power with no greenhouse gas emissions - they will wholeheartedly support their government's forward-thinking policy. Then the engineers and scientists can get on with the job of building an energy infrastructure that makes it possible to reduce the use of fossil fuels and the threat of climate change.
The writer is a former leader of Greenpeace and chair and chief scientist of Greenspirit Strategies
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