July 15, 2006

Nuclear scaremongering must be replaced by hard thinking

Posted in Ireland · 8 comments ·

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 �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 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.

I�m not doubting the lobby group effect is real at some level, but how much stronger is the oil industry�s lobby or the mainstream green movement�s lobby? The Friends of the Earth – which should support anything that reduces carbon emissions and the associated climate changes – applauded the minister�s 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 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 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 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, 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 �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 we are all influenced by the Cold War, Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the threat of Armageddon. For most of us, the word �nuclear� conjures up images of Japanese civilians being vaporised by the heat of the atomic bomb.

The very word �nuclear� 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 � 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?

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.

  1. fitzcarraldo

    The level of numerate, scientific and technical discourse
    in Irish media is pretty low and it seems that this
    government is pandering to that view of things. If the
    media don’t point out how the government continues to
    ignore facts then what hope have we of progress?

  2. keith bohanna

    I usually enjoy your articles David.

    However if you want to bring your brain power to the cause
    of logical debate on this issue then summarising the
    problems of storage of waste by the phrase “can be buried
    easily” and referring to people with an opposing point of
    view as “card carrying” does not do you justice never mind
    the issue itself.

    IMHO :-)


  3. Garry

    Im not pro-nuclear but whats the alternative?

    Wind is an option, what can it produce?… Coal/Thermal is
    even worse for the planet than nuclear, the difference is a
    definite increase in global warming with coal vs a possible
    future accident with nuclear…
    Biofuels are only useful as a hobbist way for individuals
    who have land… Its net energy return is very low. i.e.
    the energy returned after planting, applying fertilizer,
    harvesting etc … And as soon as it becomes an industry,
    the environment loses because competition must be allowed.
    The plants that generate oil or sugar grow much more
    efficiently in tropical regions, which means more forrests
    being cleared to grow green fuel!

    I heard that figure of 75 dead from Chernobyl a while back
    and it really struck me how distortion of facts are not
    exclusively confined to the nuclear lobby.

    Conservation can help, one small idea would be an EU wide
    ban of electronic devices with a standby function. But
    it’ll take more than getting up and switching off the telly
    to make a serious dent in our energy consumption.

    As we face into an autumn of yet more fighting in the
    middle east and Mr Putin sabre rattling over Russian gas
    pipelines, isnt it time Ireland started to develop an
    energy policy? Just how much notice do we want?
    And lets not rule nuclear in or out, lets have it as an
    option to be considered as part of the policy…

  4. Garry

    Mairead, if theres a better option than nuclear, great!

    But consider the following when looking for alternatives.

    Whats the climate change impact if the technology is moved
    from being a ‘hobby’ to a proper industry? Where it
    contributes something meaningful to our energy needs e.g.;
    a consistent 2000MW power output.
    What’s the net energy returned over the projects lifetime?
    i.e. the energy generated minus the energy used to design,
    build, operate and decommission/dispose of waste.

    On both these questions, most of the “green” alternatives
    don’t stack up. My opinion is hydro/wind/wave can work
    because basically its converting movement to electricity.
    But that anything which involves growing stuff to burn it
    is not green and probably wont be a net energy contributor.
    Nuclear may be necessary; e.g. wind power sounds really
    good but check out http://www.eirgrid.ie/EirgridPortal/

    Why can’t Ireland Inc. pay a few independent people to do
    the research… preferably not the consultants who do our
    computer projects though :)

  5. Simon

    What a shame another simplistic arguement about Nuclear.
    Here is my view.

  6. Glen Quinn

    Why do people keep using the UK as an example to Nuclear
    power. Far enough the UK was one of the first to build
    nuclear Reactors with vacume tubes and iron valves but in
    todays technology with the silicon chip and rapid advances
    in construction equipment and procedures the cost of
    constructing a nuclear reactor is much cheaper today. It
    does not cost Billions. Maybe a couple of million. The
    only reason why it cost the UK so much is because there
    trying to either upgrade or close down legacy (very old)

    People should be looking at continental countries like
    Belgium, France, Germany etc. Belgium gets 33% of there
    electricity from Nuclear and they built a Nuclear plant in
    Brussels! Maybe everybody should take a look at these
    countries and learn from them. Since we don’t hear
    anything bad about these countries with nuclear power then
    they must be doing something right.

    We must look for a solution logicaly. Straight away Oil,
    Gas and coal plants are out because of enviromental impact
    and market prices. Our only other alternative at present
    are Wind, Tidal, Recylcing of waste and Nuclear power. Why
    don’t we use all of the above alternatives. We can then
    sell any excess electricity to our friends in the UK but
    wait thats right nobody in Ireland likes to make money.

    Remember there is a Nuclear power plant (75 miles from
    Dublin) in Holyhead in Wales so we already have them
    around us.

  7. Kevin

    One of the founders of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, has
    revealed that he also thinks that nuclear power is the way
    to go for the future. As far as he’s concerned it’s the only
    option that can supply enough power for a planet of 6
    billion with the least impact. I think people in Ireland
    have been brainwashed on this issue though. It’s going to be
    like condoms, divorce and abortion all over again where
    it’ll be Paddy last finally accepting the reality of the
    world we live in way after everyone else.

  8. Chris

    Patrick Moore is not a founder of Greenpeace and is the head of a known PR and lobby group. He is not credible. Greenpeace does not advocate nuclear power.

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