THE TABLET 30 October 2004
The future’s not nuclear
Hugh Montefiore angered the green lobby last week when he revealed that he now backs nuclear power. Here one of his leading critics explains why he is wrong
THE former Bishop of Birmingham, Hugh Montefiore, last week put forward his views on these pages as to why we should embrace nuclear power in the fight against climate change. The bishop recently agreed to resign as a trustee of Friends of the Earth after some 20 years of commitment to the organisation and its campaigns because he felt he could not support our opposition to nuclear power.
His resignation is a sad loss but the result of a clear difference of views. After carefully considering the evidence, Friends of the Earth concluded that at the current time nuclear power is not an adequate or appropriate solution to the problem of climate change.
The dangers of global warming are greater than any other facing the planet, as the Bishop rightly states. We need to urgently reduce our emissions of carbon dioxide to
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tackle this threat but building new nuclear power plants, creating a future legacy of yet more pollution, is not the way to do this.
The evidence shows that the Government’s targets of a 20 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2010 can be achieved without resorting to nuclear energy. Individuals and government each have important roles to play in this strategy. There is a need to encourage the right behaviour from individuals and from industry.
As individuals, we need to make cuts in our energy use. We are all capable of saving energy in the home – turning off unwanted lights, not leaving the TV on standby, and improving insulation can all help to reduce our electricity use and cut our fuel bills. We can also do more to reduce emissions from transport – a major source of carbon dioxide emissions in the UK. Leaving the car at home, avoiding flying, using public transport, walking or cycling can all reduce our contributions to global warming.
Government actions can encourage this behaviour by raising awareness, tax incentives and support for public transport. But the Government must also act to ensure cuts in emissions from industry, support for renewable technologies and action to clean up emissions from coal. In the longer term, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution has shown that Britain can cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent by 2050 without recourse to nuclear power.
Non-nuclear alternatives are preferable because, contrary to Bishop Montefiore’s claims, nuclear power is not “a reliable, safe, cheap, almost limitless form of pollution-free energy”. Nuclear generation is polluting. It produces radioactive waste which remains dangerous for tens of thousands of years. This waste requires treatment before it can be safely stored, but some 85 per cent of the 1.75 million cubic metres of nuclear waste stored in the UK is in a raw or partially treated state.
There is no certainty about the long-term effects of storing nuclear waste, despite the bishop’s claims. In 1997 the Government rejected proposals put forward by Nirex for a storage facility at Sellafield because of concerns about “the scientific uncertainties and technical deficiencies” in the plan.
Nuclear power also results in the radioactive pollution of the natural environment. Radioactive material is discharged into our oceans and pollutes our atmosphere. The long-term impacts of this on marine life, on wildlife and on human health will be felt by generations to come. Indeed a recent government report found the health impacts from radioactive particles could be 10 times greater than previously thought.
Nor is nuclear power cheap. Billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money have been spent propping up the nuclear industry, including the cost of managing radioactive waste. Indeed a review carried out for the Cabinet Office Performance and Innovation Unit found that onshore wind turbines were the cheapest predicted power source, with nuclear costing more than all the other options with the exception of photo-voltaic solar cells. What is more, research carried out for the European Commission, looking at the overall impacts of building and operation, suggests that new nuclear power stations would produce about 50 per cent more greenhouse gas emissions than wind power.
Electricity generation is responsible for less than a third of the UK’s emissions of carbon dioxide. If we doubled the amount of nuclear power so that it provided 44 per cent of our electricity needs, we would reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by no more than eight per cent.
Our efforts to tackle global warming must be based on an overall assessment of all the sources of emissions and not just emissions of carbon dioxide. Nuclear power offers only small savings in terms of electricity, but it is costly, dangerous and polluting.
The technology used to generate nuclear power is also intrinsically linked to nuclear weapons. That is why the UK originally embarked on a nuclear-power programme. In recent years a number of countries have used nuclear power as a springboard for producing nuclear weapons. Given that the threat of global warming requires international action, if one country decides nuclear power is a suitable solution to climate change, it will be impossible to deny this technology to others. This raises the risks of nuclear proliferation – at a time when concerns about international terrorism have never been higher. We are sad to to accept Hugh Montefiore’s resignation as a trustee of Friends of the Earth but we hope that we remain friends.
Tony Juniper is Executive Director of Friends of the Earth.