EU. However, 16 early Soviet reactors remain in operation, 15 of them in Russia.
The 16th, in Armenia, is the most problematic. Armenia’s sole nuclear power plant, Metsamor, is a 1970s VVER-440/230 pressurised-water reactor located in a highly seismic area. It was closed after the 1988 Yerevan earthquake, but reopened in 1995. Today, Metsamor supplies about 35 per cent of Armenia’s total energy output and has been the subject of rigorous updating. It’s scheduled to close in 2016, but the Armenian government says that this is conditional on a new plant being commissioned.
‘The problems of nuclear accidents – even if infrequent – and waste need to be properly addressed and fully factored into the cost of nuclear power,’ says O’Driscoll. ‘Catastrophic accidents can never be ruled out. Although they are rare and less likely after more than a half century of operation, increasing numbers of nuclear power stations worldwide increase the risks. Nuclear power must be limited to long-term, stable and compliant states so that it can’t be misused and adapted to military purposes. States should remain politically moderate, stable and not collapse – and that is almost impossible to guarantee.’
changing v i ews But while governments may change, so do the views of environmentalists. The most startling twist in the debate in recent years has been the softening of a sizeable section of green opposition. Childs admits that nuclear, for so long a clear-cut line in the sand for the green movement, has become more complicated.
‘Can we achieve our emissions reduction targets without nuclear power? Many studies have suggested we can,’ says Childs. ‘But it’s clear that there’s a lack of action on meeting our emissions-reduction targets, and that brings the question of nuclear back to environmentalists as much as anyone else.’
One argument that gets a sympathetic hearing with some environmentalists is that nuclear power can buy time while we shift from fossil fuels to renewables. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, recently agreed to extend the working lives of Germany’s 17 nuclear plants by an average of 12 years, arguing that this would be a ‘bridge’ that would allow more time for reliable and affordable technologies to be developed.
‘Things move on, as the urgency of the situation with climate change becomes clearer,’ says Childs. ‘There’s a broad acceptance that climate change is a greater risk than nuclear power. Both are unwanted and both bring risks. Philosophically, Friends of the Earth seeks to hand the planet onto the next generation in
Proposed nuclear reactors (2011)
India: 40 Russia: 30
USA: 23 Ukraine: 20 Vietnam: 12
UK: 9 South Africa: 6
Brazil: 4 Turkey: 4 Canada: 3 Bangladesh: 2 Argentina: 1
the same or better shape, and radioactive waste has never really fitted with that. It’s our preferred route to avoid nuclear power if possible, but the reality is that it might be an option in extremis. In the UK, keeping plants open for another five or ten years may buy time for renewables.’
High-profile green campaigners have been more forthright in their endorsement of nuclear. In 2004, James Lovelock, the scientist and green advocate who conceived the idea of Gaia, called on environmentalists to drop their opposition to nuclear power because it didn’t produce the greenhouses gases of conventional power stations.
Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace who has supported nuclear power since, as he puts it, he lost his fear ‘about the safety of nuclear waste’, is another advocate. ‘Nuclear power doesn’t pollute the air, it doesn’t contribute greenhouse gases to any significant extent,’ he says. ‘There are many more coal plants in the world today than if nuclear had expanded, and that’s because environmentalists lobbied successfully against nuclear.’
The nuclear industry hasn’t helped itself, according to Grimston. ‘The nuclear industry was quite up itself,’ he says. ‘It was supremely
48 www.geographical.co.uk february 2011