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Warming up to nuclear power

June 11, 2006|George Monbiot | George Monbiot writes an environmental column for the Guardian of London ( His book "Heat: How to Stop the Planet Burning" will be published in Britain in October.

WHEN I TELL my "green" friends that I am rethinking nuclear power, they respond with outrage. I am an environmentalist, and, to a large extent, the green movements in the developed world arose from public concern about atomic energy.

For about 30 years we have seen nuclear power as dangerous, its radioactive wastes as unmanageable, the industry as incompetent and untrustworthy. In the environmental camp, any softening of this opposition is seen as a betrayal.

But climate change and falling energy reserves demand that we reopen the question. The nuclear industry now claims that nuclear power is the most reliable answer to the global warming caused by the overuse of fossil fuels. It argues that new technologies make it safe and cheap.

I've spent the last year searching for a way to cut carbon emissions by 90%, which is necessary to prevent runaway global warming. One of the hardest problems is how to generate enough electricity. My sympathies lie with renewable power. Alongside a massive energy-efficiency program, it plainly provides part of the answer. But it cannot supply all of our electricity needs. The rest must come from somewhere, and to dismiss nuclear power without considering what the alternatives involve would be irresponsible.

I still detest the nuclear industry and its efforts to hoodwink the public about its costs, its dangers and its record. But I've reluctantly concluded that some of its arguments have merit.

It is true, for example, that a disaster on the scale of Chernobyl is highly unlikely to happen again because no new power station will be built without a containment vessel, which prevents most radiation from escaping in an accident. But the mining, processing and use of uranium will continue to be accompanied -- as they always have been -- by leaks into the environment.

It now looks as though radioactive waste can be stored safely. The Finnish authority responsible for nuclear waste disposal has developed a method that looks foolproof. The problem is that it is expensive, and the nuclear industry has a long record of cutting corners. One British company was caught throwing nuclear waste into open shafts it had dug above crumbling coastal cliffs. Another admitted that it had been keeping plutonium in uncovered ponds for more than 30 years. Workers at the U.S. Geological Survey, which is responsible for testing the Yucca Mountain waste repository in Nevada, falsified the rates of water percolation, apparently to make the site seem safer than it is.

After reading reams of conflicting data, I now also believe that global supplies of uranium are not the limiting factor many feared. On the other hand, the threat of nuclear terrorism can never be wholly dismissed, and the more fissile materials that are extracted and refined, the more opportunities there will be for people to obtain them. But although the radiation released by accidents or terrorists could kill hundreds or perhaps thousands of people, climate change caused by burning fossil fuels threatens hundreds of millions.

Though nuclear power is plainly less dangerous than climate change, I would still like to avoid building new plants if possible. But the real danger is this: If we oppose nuclear power without demonstrating that there are viable alternatives, we become, in effect, lobbyists for the coal industry. In Eurasia, there are still abundant supplies of natural gas, but in North America, gas production has already peaked and is in long-term decline. Already, coal supplies 32% of U.S. electricity, while natural gas supplies 24% and nuclear power 10%. As 90% of remaining U.S. fossil energy reserves take the form of coal, gas generators are likely to be replaced by coal plants. The same applies to aging nuclear generators, if they are not replaced by new ones.

If you believe that burning coal sounds more benign than nuclear power, I invite you to turn on your computer and search for images of the "mountaintop removal" being carried out by coal-mining companies in the Appalachians. It looks as if a nuclear disaster already has happened. The forests have been flattened, the hilltops blown off, the valleys filled with sterile rubble. Coal is also the worst of all fuels as far as climate change is concerned. It contains 40% more carbon per unit of energy than gas.

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