Friday, August 27, 2004

Two Environmental Heavyweights Spar Over Nuclear Power

There's a debate in the Independent today between Zac Goldsmith, editor of The Ecologist magazine, and James Lovelock, originator of the Gaia Hypothesis. I'll be the first to admit it seems odd, and challenging, that Mr. Lovelock is arguing for widespread adoption of nuclear power. And, as I read his case, strange statements like this can be found:
Try to imagine the social consequences of hundreds of millions of homeless refugees seeking dry land on which to live. In the turmoil, they may look back and wonder how humans could have been so foolish as to bring so much misery upon themselves by the thoughtless burning of carbon fuels. They may then reflect regretfully that they could have avoided their miseries by the safe use of nuclear energy.

Nuclear power, although potentially harmful to people, is a negligible danger to the planet. Natural ecosystems can stand levels of continuous radiation that would be intolerable in a city. The land around Chernobyl was evacuated because its high radiation intensity made it unsafe for people, but this radioactive land is now rich in wildlife, much more so than neighbouring areas.

So, Lovelock seems to be concerned with people in one paragraph, and then in the next paragraph seems to be marketing the benefits of radioactivity on the local ecology (though NOT for humans). For someone who believes in the Gaia hypothesis, maybe it's a good thing that nuclear accidents will clear people out, yet allow the natural fauna and flora to flourish, but, for someone like me (who puts people first), that's a non-starter.

I won't go into my views (in detail) in this post on nuclear power, just spotlight a few grafs from each of the debaters, but let it be known that I am 100% against conceiving of nuclear power as a positive development, and for many reasons, including security, non-proliferation, full-cost accounting, reliance on technocrats, human nature, history, warfare, democracy, human rights, a clean environment, and hypocrisy (can every nation freely develop nuclear power, or will some be hostage to those who are allowed?). Okay, on to Goldsmith's opposition:

And so in panic, a number of high-profile commentators are calling for the widespread adoption of nuclear power. Greens, they say, have to choose between climate change and their old enemy - nuclear power.

But it's a manufactured choice, peddled by an industry in the final spasm of a struggle to survive. Fundamentally, nuclear power is a problem, not a solution. And it's a problem on virtually every level.


But with or without terrorists, the lives of countless British people dangle in the hands of the technocrats each and every day. And as we know, technocrats make mistakes. Last year, for instance, Sellafield came close to disaster when explosive gases were allowed to build up in tanks that store highly-radioactive nuclear waste. Amazingly, the BNFL staff on duty ignored warning alarms for nearly three hours. Even without potential disasters, routine radioactive emissions ensure cancer clusters around virtually every installation. Sellafield, for instance, boasts a cancer cluster 10 times the national average.

Two years ago, Vice-President Dick Cheney lamented that the US government hadn't approved a single application for a new nuclear power plant for 20 years. What he didn't say was that there had been no application. Nuclear power is a bad investment. Without massive government involvement and incalculable public subsidies, it simply wouldn't exist. According to The Economist, OECD governments poured $159bn (£89bn) into nuclear research between 1974 and 1998. BNFL, meanwhile, has admitted it faces a bill of £34bn to clean up waste, and it expects that waste to increase by a minimum of 500 per cent over the next decade.

On every level, nuclear is an unattractive option, unless you happen to belong to al-Qa'ida and want to close down an economy overnight. So for the industry to be granted a life-extension requires belief that it is the only solution to an even bigger problem - climate change.

But even there, nuclear power is a false hope. The instinctively pro-nuclear Mr Blair was told last year by his own energy advisors that nuclear is a "red herring". "You can achieve a low-carbon economy without nuclear," they told him.

I'll give Lovelock the last word (against Goldsmith at least...I'll have more to say):

The fear of nuclear energy is understandable through its association in the mind with the horrors of nuclear warfare, but it is unjustified; nuclear power plants are not bombs. They are, in fact, built solidly enough to withstand even a direct hit by a plane in a terrorist attack, according to industry experts.

What at first was a proper concern for safety has become a near-pathological anxiety. Much of the blame for this goes to the news media, the television and film industries, and fiction writers. All these have used the fear of things nuclear as a reliable prop to sell their wares. They, and the political disinformers who sought to discredit the nuclear industry as potential enemies, have been so successful at frightening the public that it is now impossible in many nations to propose a new nuclear power plant.

No source of power is entirely safe, even windmills are not free of fatal accidents, but compared to nuclear power, the dangers of continuing to burn fossil fuels (oil, gas, coal) as our main energy source are far greater and they threaten not just individuals but civilisation itself. Much of the First World behaves like an addicted smoker: we are so used to burning fossil fuels for our needs that we ignore their long-term risks.


I hope that it is not too late for the world to emulate France and make nuclear power our principal source of energy. At present we have no other viable alternative.

I ought to suggest to Mr. Lovelock that he not emphasize emulating France as part of his case, since his allies on this matter will be coming largely from the Right, and aren't high on the French. Perhaps the Japanese would be a better choice.

Also, I suggest all of you read the whole debate, as Goldsmith clearly makes the more relevant and cogent case, while Lovelock, aside from the coherence of the graf I subquoted, mainly veers off into a defense of nuclear radioactivity that, though harmful to humans, has been part of the history of the planet since primordial times. Honestly, all of that is a red herring, because this debate is about people, our lives, health, freedom, and security, and how we live together (in terms of how we structure our institutions and relations).

That said, my case is better than both of these men's, and I will be making it here in the next few days.

For starters, imagine how much support for nuclear energy there would be if the location for the plant was held by lottery (so, conceivably, it could be placed adjacent to a middle-class or wealthy neighborhood)...