July 15, 2006
Why is it an article of faith to be against nuclear power in Ireland? We are not talking about the Cold War or devastation, but the clean 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 ï¿½greenï¿½ 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 Galileoï¿½s retraction in the 16th century and later, the banning of books here in the 1950s.
Speaking of Galileo, how do the opponents of nuclear power think our sun and stars generate their energy, which dictates our natural environment, if not from nuclear fusion?
Last week, Britain announced that it was going to open five new nuclear plants over the coming years to diversify its dependence on oil and other fossil fuels. The aim is to reduce carbon emissions. It seems quite logical and grown up to look at all alternatives and then make a difficult choice.
However, when I listened to Minister for the Environment Dick Roche stating how we would never buy electricity from Britain that was generated by nuclear power, I was struck by the forcefulness of his denunciation, especially given the lack of facts at his disposal. One of his main arguments was that the nuclear industry was a huge lobby group that had bamboozled the British government into the decision.
So suddenly, instead of logic, we enter the conspiracy theory realm.
Iï¿½m not doubting the lobby group effect is real at some level, but how much stronger is the oil industryï¿½s lobby or the mainstream green movementï¿½s lobby? The Friends of the Earth – which should support anything that reduces carbon emissions and the associated climate changes – applauded the ministerï¿½s position. Why?
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 Armageddon, we would experience cataclysmic climate changes, such as the possible disappearance of the Gulf Stream. Imagine Ireland with Newfoundlandï¿½s winter.
This would be traumatic for all of us. In the extreme, we could experience global meltdown. This is the mainstream green movementï¿½s trump card and we should all listen to it.
For example, when the last ice age ended and the worldï¿½s temperature heated up, the oceans rose by 120 metres and 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 year 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.
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.
Roche made a big deal of this the other day. He is tapping into a deep fear that we all have about being contaminated by proximity to nuclear waste – which, incidentally, can be buried easily – again because of the efficiency of the process in the first place.
Many argue that this fear is overdone.
For example, according to James Lovelock – one of the worldï¿½s 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, unlike carbon dioxide emissions, which could kill us all via global warming (for more on James Lovelock see The Revenge of Gaia by Lovelock, 2006).
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. 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 ï¿½the nuclear lobbyï¿½? I realise that it is more theatrical to dress up your enemy in vaudeville villainï¿½s clothing, but is it accurate? Does it help us avoid a new hot age?
Maybe the reason is that we are all influenced by the Cold War, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the threat of Armageddon. For most of us, the word ï¿½nuclearï¿½ conjures up images of Japanese civilians being vaporised by the heat of the atomic bomb.
The very word ï¿½nuclearï¿½ signifies death, war and mindless destruction.
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 ï¿½ and where you stood on it ï¿½ was more about your politics than your science. Thus being anti-nuclear was part of a suite of ideas that was unequivocally ï¿½right onï¿½. It was part of a unifying mantra that put humanity over aggression. Who could argue with that?
Likewise, who could argue with an organisation called Friends of the Earth? If you did, would that make you an enemy of the earth?
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.
It will require hard thinking over mantras and will demand that the green movement – which in Ireland this week displayed the most rigid, rejectionist and, frankly, silly attitude to Britain reactivating its nuclear programme – open its eyes to alternatives.
Put simply, the future of the planet is far too serious to be left to card-carrying environmentalists.