There's green and then there's green…

Glow Farm by TahoeSunsets; a Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR)

Glow Farm by TahoeSunsets; a Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR)

This week the government announced it’s plan for solving the upcoming energy crisis: More nuclear power stations. A list of proposed sites was published and various spokespeople were extolling the green credentials of nuclear power. Eh? New one on me. The usual arguments centre on plenty of cheap power, almost limitless amounts; rarely does one hear that nuclear power is the new green icon. It’s true that nuclear power wins hands down when compared to coal or other fossil fuels in terms of carbon dioxide output but that is to look at one part of the picture in isolation. There are a few other factors which need to be discussed.

Firstly, there is the safety aspect. There is some interesting reading on this topic from the industry themselves who are quick to point out there have only ever been two major accidents: Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Fair enough, a small number but not insignificant as anyone who remembers either incident will recall.  Yes, incidents are few but when they occur they can be very severe with international reach, unlike incidents at other forms of power station. Add to this the higher incidence of childhood leukemia near nuclear plants, Sellafield reprocessing plant for example, and it is hard to say that nuclear power is clean or green.

Secondly, there is the waste. There are still no plans for dealing with the amounts of waste generated and it was only in 2005 that a government report was recommending various forms of burial as the way forward. So nuclear power may be considered green if we gloss over the fact that it generates toxic waste which cannot easily be dealt with and has enormous potential for environmental harm.

And finally, the cost. Building new nuclear power stations is not cheap, running them is also not cheap but the real cost comes with decommissioning. British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL) are already suffering from the costs of decommissioning the UK’s current plants so the idea that a commercial enterprise can run nuclear power stations as a profit making venture seems ill founded. The tax-payer will end up subsidising nuclear power in one way or another; if private companies run the plants then a proportion of this revenue can be seen to be flowing into the hands of private individuals.

So, I am not objecting to this latest proposal out of irrational hatred of nuclear power, rather I am objecting to the ‘spin’ that is being put on this initiative and the way in which only part of the story is being put forward by the government. It’s true, at current rates of consumption we will need more energy and with dwindling stocks of fossil fuels, we need other options. There is also the greenhouse effect and the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. But these need to be weighed against other issues and suddenly leaping from a no-nuclear standpoint to a pro-nuclear standpoint, wrapping up the shift in policy in pseudo-green credentials smacks of more New Labour double talk, especially when taken in conjunction with the proposed streamlining of the planning system as being all about empowering local communities (rather than steam-rollering opposition, which seems to be more like it).

On the subject of the planning system overhaul and the proposed nuclear developments, Caroline Lucas, the leader of the Green party, said in the Guardian: “Bypassing the planning system in this way is bad news for democracy and for the environment. A key democratic right is for the public to have a say on how their area is developed. Decision-making about where we get our energy from, and the long-term costs associated with nuclear, should be opened up to more accountability, not less.” Indeed. We need an open and honest debate about these issues with solid scientific advice as the basis and public participation. But I was forgetting, this government wouldn’t recognise good scientific advice or what to do with it anyway, as Dr Evan Harris MP (Lib Dem, Oxford West & Abingdon) most eloquently pointed out in the Guardian.