I welcome Les Hearn’s participation in our nuclear debate, particularly as I remember reading about climate change in his science column in Socialist Organiser as long ago as 1988-89. However he completely evades the central problems with nuclear (Solidarity 3/127, 21 February 2008).
Climate change has apparently given the proponents of nuclear a new lease of life. However nuclear can contribute only on electricity generation, not to the main sources of emissions, namely for heat and for transport. The government’s Sustainable Development Commission estimates that if 10 new reactors displaced gas fired power stations, only 4% of carbon emissions would be saved annually. It would be more if coal-fired power stations were displaced, but we need to put the perceived benefits of nuclear for climate change in perspective.
And then there are the costs. Les does not discuss the range of safety risks from nuclear, preferring to quote the findings of the 2005 Chernobyl’s Legacy report, which attributed 56 direct deaths (47 accident workers, and nine children with thyroid cancer), to the disaster. However he brushes over its estimate of a further 4,000 childhood thyroid cancer cases and 5,000 others among people living nearby.
Of course, none of the new reactors will use the same technology as Chernobyl. And no one in this debate is minimising the risks from coal mining, oil or gas. However the Chernobyl example gives us some indication of what a nuclear accident could do to both workers on the site and others in the surrounding area, which must be part of any calculation on building new reactors.
A more substantial and very long-term cost is nuclear waste. Les might fantasise about thorium reactors but the reality here and now is that the new reactors will not be built to burn up their own waste. Nor is there a suitable site for geological disposal available.
The British government spent £400 million research on a site in Cumbria, only to find that it was unsuitable. The Yucca Mountain site in the US is not operational. In fact none of the advanced capitalist powers have a suitable geological site. Perhaps they will eventually come up with a solution; until then we are right to be sceptical.
What about the alternatives? Gordon Brown said in November that the UK could produce 40% of its electricity from renewables by 2020. The government already has estimates for how much renewables using existing technologies could contribute. Clearly tidal barrages and wind farms have ecological costs, though none it seems to me as serious as nuclear. And a substantial amount of emissions could be saved from energy efficiency measures.
If the government’s own estimates are right, then nuclear is not actually necessary for cutting carbon emissions, providing the political will and the economic resources are committed to these alternatives. It is part of our job to ensure that they are, rather than cheerleading for nuclear.