3 December 2005

Nelson's nuclear blind eye

By Andrew Boswell

Today is International Day of Climate Protest. Worldwide from Athens to New Zealand, people are demonstrating for stronger binding targets for carbon emissions reduction after 2012 (post-Kyoto) based on the 'Contraction and Convergence' scheme - as supported by Norwich City Council in Tuesday night's vote.

Thousands of UK citizens will march in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast - Norwich 'Campaign against Climate Change' is hosting a march, too, from the Forum to St John's Catholic Cathedral, starting at 9.15am.

Urgent action is needed to put the UK back on track to meeting in its emissions targets - they are going up, and are only 4% below the level of 1990 whilst the government target is to be 20% below by 2010.

The UK must agree tough new targets for after 2012. Tony Blair deeply worries many people, including MPs of all parties, when he is no longer sure that we need emissions targets, and may turn his back on 15 years of British climate policy to please his friend George Bush again.

The government's climate policy is in disarray, and they have failed to act on their own 2003 Energy White Paper which promoted localised and renewable energy sources, whilst Germany and Spain, amongst other countries, have made much greater progress in implementing similar policies.

This week Tony Blair announced a new energy review - effectively admitting this failure to deliver the White Paper. Time has been wasted in securing our energy, and now that Mr Blair is desperate to be seen doing something, he is spinning nuclear energy as a route to a "carbon free" future.

In fact, a new nuclear industry will be expensive in emissions - actually increasing emissions compared to other options.

Anyone thinking that nuclear is carbon neutral (ie has no emissions) has taken a telescope, conveniently provided by the nuclear industry, with a fixed line of sight to one very small part of the nuclear process - the physics of the energy generating process itself. In Nelson's blind-eye tradition, they claim "nuclear fission … E equals M C squared … can't see much carbon in there … no, that C isn't carbon, its the speed of light … no, absolutely no carbon".

Let's take away the deceptive telescope and look clearly with both eyes at the whole nuclear lifecycle. The industry depends on a rare metal, Uranium, which has to be extracted from weak ores, often in inaccessible parts of the globe. Huge amounts of carbon dioxide are required to mine and extract Uranium, transport it around the world, and process it into high concentrated fuel rods. The carbon emissions from this are estimated to be at least one third of the emissions from a gas fired electricity station.

Over time, the quality and accessibility of available ore will decrease, and both the economic and carbon costs of nuclear fuel will increase drastically. The ore may run out completely before Blair's new power stations would complete their life.

There are further huge energy / emissions costs in building the elephantine power station, and later decommissioning it, processing the waste and disposing of it. The energy required to deal with the waste will continue effectively forever - we cannot be sure of current waste management strategies working for even 100 years. And 10000 generations will need to reprocess and find new solutions to the nuclear waste from just our 2 or 3 generations.

A new nuclear industry will haemorrhage funding into this single (non-)solution. Of course, Blair says his new nuclear industry will be "private" and have to "compete" in the neo-liberal marketplace, but, like with PFI, you can bet the consumer will fund it in the long run with special levies.

This huge expense will directly damage our ability to reduce carbon emissions as nuclear will take vital funding from energy sources which really are renewable - wind, wave, tidal, solar. The miniscule funding that these energies have now would disappear, and so would the political will to fully develop them.

Blair said once he couldn't put an environmental tax on cheap flights, a fast growing source of carbon emissions, because it would be "unpopular" with people, yet he is prepared to back the deeply unpopular nuclear option. The truth is that in both cases he places loyalty to business and the free market before people.

He would fiscally restrict the aviation industry tomorrow if he wasn't scared of upsetting a large and powerful industry. He would fast track renewables, the next day, if it wasn't for the aggressive PR campaign of the nuclear "big boys".

The Norwich march ends at the Green Fair at St John's Cathedral on Earlham Road. Do come and talk to myself and other marchers about Climate Change.