4 June 2005

We need an open debate on energy

By Andrew Boswell

Novozybkov is a Russian city which was heavily drenched with radioactive fallout when the Chernobyl nuclear reactor melted down in 1986. Here radiation moves ghostlike from place to place sensitive to pollutants and chemical toxins, winds dust and rain. For their safely, children and families need to use radiation monitors daily to know where the radiation is.

Although the recent election was distinguished by a lack of debate on the key issue of our time - climate change and future energy security - the future of nuclear energy in this county is now on the agenda. Now the pro-nuclear lobby is briefing fast and thick. "Please let us build just one more generation of nuclear power stations - we'll make 'em safer and create less dangerous waste."

Can the people of Novozybkov, or Norfolk, ever believe a nuclear power station can be "safe"? Can hundreds of future generations and those, now, in whose countries the waste is currently dumped agree that "waste can be less dangerous"?

Perhaps the most ironic argument is the one which calls for us all to be more "open-minded" about the nuclear option. We are asked to give up our "prejudices", born of the nightmare experience of Three Mile Island and of Chernobyl, and to give up the small step in imagination of a jet crashing into Sizewell rather than the Twin Towers.

Yes, very ironic, because the environmental movement has called for years for an open discussion on climate change - most recently during the election, when their calls were largely ignored by Westminster politicians (some waiting silently for the post-election nuclear frenzy) and by the press alike.

Still, I agree we need an open debate - and in this light of openness, let's look seriously at every option and alternative. The discussion on our future energy needs must be framed as part of a "bigger than nuclear", and bigger than any single solution, discussion including:
  • energy efficiency in industry and in buildings, rapid implementation of regulatory and tax policy to curtail inefficient energy use.
  • a national programme of grants to encourage greater domestic energy self-sufficiency through small scale wind and solar energy generation.
  • all renewable energy sources - we needs a basket of approaches. Whilst wind energy is the most exploited renewable in this country, and is beginning to make a significant contribution despite its nuclear lobby detractors, wave, tidal and biomass must be developed. Tidal power is being promoted to meet the entire needs of Auckland, capital of New Zealand with over 1million people. With many estuaries and harbours, why are we in the UK not making more of the huge potential of this safe energy source?
  • the rich nations should help the uptake of renewables in the third world - so they can increase energy security without the same cost in greenhouse gases (ghgs) emissions.
  • all forms of transport "paying their real cost". This means taxing air fuel, and stopping the subsidy of the aviation industry. It means abandoning the £30billion road building programme, and investing instead in public transport and sustainable transport policies.
  • eliminating the worst aspects of free-trading globalised economies - for example, the absurdity of flying vast amounts of food around the world. Why can I often only find apples from far flung continents - China, USA, and Chile - in most Norfolk supermarkets, when Norfolk apples are superb, different and surely the best?
Common sense ideas and technically solutions available now abound - see this pdf on the Friends of the Earth website for more information.

Beware too, the misleading propaganda that nuclear provides a "catch-all", single solution to climate change - it does no such thing. UK electricity production only contributes to ¼ of ghgs, and, of this, currently just ¼ is generated by nuclear energy - at current levels, nuclear power can make no more than 1/16th or 6% contribution to ghgs reduction in the UK. Promoting nuclear as a generic panacea is, then, an extreme deception, when we actually need to reduce ghgs by 60%-90% by 2050.

The argument now should not be about whether to go nuclear or not, but how we can achieve so much more by a joined up, sustainable approach. Yes, let's have a truly open and committed debate on the full spectrum of energy policy. Such open debate will show that further nuclear development would divert resources in investment and engineering from much more creative and ecological sound solutions. We are at a crisis time - it is no time to look at expensive, short sighted solutions. I, for one, don't want to read Norwich for Novozybkov in 2033.