The world – and that means Ireland too – is at a once-in-a-century crossroads. We are moving away from carbon based fuels to nuclear power. This century will be nuclear and we had better get used to it. While the language and prejudices of the 20th century still (understandably) dominate the nuclear debate, the realities of the 21st century point unambiguously to a nuclear future. Nuclear power does not mean nuclear weapons and this distinction will become increasingly apparent in the years ahead and the world is already going nuclear. Led by France and Asia, in twenty or thirty years’ time, nuclear power will be the norm. Ireland cannot opt out or shirk responsibility indefinitely.
If we want to maintain our lifestyle with its voracious demand for energy we will have to embrace nuclear too. The fact that we are the third most oil-dependent country in Europe will accelerate this process. There are five major factors driving the nuclear world.
1. Oil production will peak in the next decade and run out thereafter.
2. Global warming implies that we can’t continue to burn carbon based fuels for energy.
3. The world population is growing rapidly and, as it does, the demand for energy rises exponentially. The demand from China and India alone will drive the price of oil and other fuels through the roof.
4. Nuclear is the most environmentally-friendly energy known to man
5. Thus far, renewables and other forms of sustainable energy such as wind, water and wave have proved not to be powerful enough to satisfy our energy needs.
6. Resource-driven conflicts will mean that countries or regions will have to look after themselves and increasingly look after their own needs by investing in nuclear power plants.
But don’t take my word for it: look at the plans for new nuclear power plants in Finland, France and Sweden – all countries with impeccable environmental records. The UK announced that it will ramp up its nuclear programme over the next ten years while, in Asia, China is opening 24 new nuclear plants in the next ten years. This is only the tip of the iceberg.
An interesting way to assess the global attitude to nuclear is by examining the price of uranium itself. It has risen by 650% in the past four years as savvy investors see that the nuclear age is almost upon us and are buying uranium accordingly. Interestingly, in the past few months as oil, gas and other commodity prices have fallen, uranium is the only commodity whose price has continued to rise.
In Ireland, it is an article of faith to be against nuclear power. Why is this? We are talking about the clean, efficient power which heats houses, freezes food, keeps hospital operating theatres working and lights our schools. Why, when energy is the single biggest economic and political issue facing rich countries, do we feel that we have to exclude the most ‘green’ and environmentally friendly source of energy known to mankind?
Why do we stifle debate on nuclear power? The sometimes hysterical muzzling of a debate on nuclear power can be seen as a modern secular version of the old religious dictates that led to Galileo’s retraction in the 16th century or the banning of books here in the 1950s.
Given the depletion of the world’s resources and the fact that carbon emissions are unsustainable, nuclear power is a logical alternative.
First we have to get over our very 20th century fear of nuclear power. The very word ‘nuclear’ scares us. Its lexicon is contaminated. It is associated with Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Cold War. As bread goes with butter, nuclear goes with warhead.
In most of our minds, nuclear signifies death and destruction on a monumental scale. If not warheads, missiles and bombs, the word nuclear conjures up images of accidents, leaks, fallout and horrendously deformed babies.
But this is only half the story, and while we shouldn’t dismiss concerns about safety, we should also open our minds to the possibility that nuclear power is part of the energy solution, not part of the problem.
For example, countries with the highest environmental standards in Europe, such as Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, France and Germany rely significantly – and in France’s case overwhelmingly (80%) – on nuclear power for electricity.
These are not irresponsible countries that would willingly put their citizens at risk. Indeed, there has never been an accident in any of these countries.
When Britain announced a few weeks back that it was going to open five new nuclear plants over the coming years to diversify its dependence on oil and other fossil fuels, it stated that its aim is to reduce carbon emissions. It seems quite logical and grown up to look at all the alternatives.
However, our Minister for the Environment Dick Roche responded by stating we would never buy electricity from Britain that was generated by nuclear power. Ok not from the Brits but where are we going to get our energy from? What are the alternatives? Is the present policy or more and more oil dependence sustainable and has the anti-nuclear mantra replaced hard thinking when it comes to taking responsibility for the planet?
The issue is pretty clear-cut: the world – with its burgeoning human population – risks a new hot age. The more fossil fuels we burn, the hotter the planet becomes, the more the polar ice caps melt and the greater the risk, among other things, of a great flood.
Obviously, prior to this hot-age Armageddon, we would experience cataclysmic climate changes, such as the possible disappearance of the Gulf Stream. Imagine Ireland with Newfoundland’s winter. This would be traumatic for all of us. In the extreme, we could experience global meltdown. This is the mainstream green movement’s trump card and we should all listen to it.
For example, when the last ice age ended and the world’s temperature heated up, the oceans rose by 120 metres which eliminated land life on entire continents. So the choice for all environmentalists – and here I believe that includes most of us – is a new hot age or not.
At first glance, the numbers seem trivial.
When scientists talk about a 1 degree centigrade change here and there, most of us shrug our shoulders. But if you think that the difference between the average temperature of the past 1,000 years in this part of the world and the ice age 12,000 years ago was only just over 3 degrees, you should start to worry. Climatologists are suggesting that if we continue living as we are and burning fuels as we are doing, the northern hemisphere might experience a 5 degree increase in average temperature in this century. So something has to be done.
The beauty of nuclear energy for the environment is that it is so efficient. Basically, you get much more energy from nuclear than from any other source – lots more. For example, it takes a million times more oil and gas to produce the same amount of electricity as it does using uranium. So it is considerably cleaner than fossil fuel and much less damaging to the environment. We harm our environment more from burning peat in Ireland than we would if we had a nuclear power station heating every home in the country.
Now how environmentally sound is that?
Despite the fact that most engineers will accept that nuclear is much more efficient, most of us have a fear about nuclear waste. But the rest of the world has shown that nuclear waste can be buried safely. In terms of nuclear waste and decommissioning older nuclear plants, Finland and Sweden are introducing technical solutions that satisfy most of the domestic opposition to nuclear power. It is fair to say, given their environmental records, that, if it is good enough for the Scandinavians, it should be good enough for us.
Many environmentalists appreciate the efficiency and thus environmental soundness of nuclear. For example, according to James Lovelock – one of the world’s most unimpeachable environmentalists and the proponent of the wonderful Gaia theory of why the whole planet works – nuclear fission reactions generate two million times less waste than burning fossil fuels. Nuclear waste pits are no threat to the planet (at worst, if managed irresponsibly they are a threat to those in the immediate vicinity), unlike carbon dioxide emissions, which could kill us all via global warming.
So, the nuclear debate appears to be shrouded in irrational fears and, in some instances, blatant lies. Take the Chernobyl affair. I remember distinctly the terror after the news trickled out. People were talking about thousands dying and large swathes of Europe being irretrievably contaminated. The figure of between 30,000 to 40,000 dead was taken as gospel.
Do you know how many people died as a direct result of Chernobyl? According to the World Health Organisation, the figure 20 years after the accident is 75.Thesewere mainly the workers and firemen who tried to control the blaze in the hours and days after the fallout. What about Three-Mile-Island in the US? Not one person died as a result of the accident at Three-Mile-Island. Ask any anti-nuclear campaigners the truth on this figure and you will be hard pressed to get a straight answer.
So why are we fed so many lies about nuclear power by the mainstream green movement? Why, when the industry is self-evidently smaller and less well connected than the oil industry, do we still hear so much about ‘the nuclear lobby’? I realise that it is more theatrical to dress up your enemy in vaudeville villain’s clothing, but is it accurate? Does it help us avoid a new hot age?
Maybe the reason is that for many of us, the word ‘nuclear’ conjures up images of Japanese civilians being vaporized by the heat of the atomic bomb.
Many original Green Party members from the 1970s and 1980s were both antiwar activists and members of CND. Both were inextricably linked and “morally good”.
Environmentalism and the anti-war movement went hand in hand and, in their eyes, so too did imperialism (either American or Soviet) and nuclear power.
So nuclear energy – and where you stood on it – was more about your politics than your science. Thus being anti-nuclear was part of a suite of ideas that was unequivocally ‘right on’. It was part of a unifying mantra that put humanity over aggression. Who could argue with that?
But shibboleths and old positions are not enough any more. Given the other narrative about the possibilities of nuclear power, the reality of oil production peaking, the ramifications of the soon to be 8 billion voracious humans on the planet and the prospect of a new hot age, all ideas and technologies need to be entertained.
We simply have no alternative. Oil is running out. The regimes that control oil are becoming increasingly unstable and might not last the shock of running out of black gold. So supplies might be unstable even before it runs out.
Either we go nuclear or we risk climate change on a devastating scale. To reduce carbon emissions, either we switch to nuclear power in some form or we change our entire consumer-driven society and its growth-based economic benchmarks.
While there is no doubt that concerns about nuclear energy is real, they will not be made clearer by regarding nuclear power as heresy. In Ireland, we need to explore every avenue and close the door to none.
A new generation is emerging -the Pope’s Children – who are not hamstrung by the ideology of the 1970s, who realize that the planet is in danger and who want to maintain the lifestyle to which they have grown accustomed. For them, nuclear is an option. In 2030, there is every possibility that we will be a nuclear state and, if not, we will definitely be importing nuclear energy from elsewhere. We might as well start discussing this eventuality now.