8 July 2006

Powerful decisions at the heart of Europe

By Marguerite Finn

With the Prime Minister expected within days to say he has decided on new nuclear power stations, one wonders what it was that persuaded the Spanish government last month to phase out nuclear power altogether; and Portugal, next door, to resolve never to have it? Why, too, should Germany be so firmly against nuclear energy, while next door France plans more and more reactors?

All these countries with similar economies, are limited by the same broad resource parameters, have similarly burgeoning standards of living and power consumption, and inhabit the same part of the same climate-threatened planet. We are all threatened by the same awesome consequences of nuclear terrorism and we know that clouds of radioisotopes respect no national boundaries and the disposal of nuclear waste is a globally insoluble problem, not just a national one.

Over such a fundamental issue as power generation, how can there be such radically different governmental attitudes?

The prestigious German Öko-Institut shows, with its Global Emission Model of Integrated Systems (GEMIS), that for every kilowatt/hour of electricity it produces, nuclear uses over a kilowatt/hour of primary energy – that is, in trying to take a step forwards it goes more than a step backwards. So what is it about nuclear that compensates for that? Even dirty old coal produces nearly twice as many Kwh as it costs, and wind power produces more than 200 times as many Kwh as it costs.

Nuclear power can provide only electricity, not other forms of power, and in doing so it wastes two thirds of the energy generated as heat in the necessary cooling water and in transmission, so there must be some other strong reason for a passionately rationalistic Prime Minister to go for such a patently inefficient system of powering our affluent society.

It is electricity at the push of a switch that drives our culture in its headlong pursuit of more and more convenience, and Tony Blair knows that perfectly well – just as he knows that artificial light accounts for almost one-fifth of the world's electricity consumption, and that the global demand for electric light within 25 years is projected to be almost twice today's level, as the developing world scrambles to catch up with western levels. He also knows that the climate could never cope if that electricity were to come from the same sources as now, but also that the planet’s environment is every bit as seriously threatened by nuclear power, if he chooses that route. There are dangers in every direction.

It must in the end come down to a decision on the basis of the precautionary principle. For such decisions the quality of the information used is of paramount importance.

It is therefore ominous that Mr Blair is going for French nuclear know-how, in view of a report produced by the independent consultant nuclear engineer John Large, concerning the safety case for the European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) the French are particularly interested in building. That safety case decided the containment of the reactor would withstand the impact of a military aircraft, so the reactor was therefore safe against terrorist attack. However the safety case was a carefully guarded secret, as is the French government's wont in les affaires nucléares, and only when it was leaked to Dr Large did he discover that the aircraft described would weigh only about 5 tonnes, whereas a large civil airliner full of aviation fuel would weigh about twenty times that much, yet such a possibility was not even mooted in the safety case. The Prime Minister would do well to heed his own Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, which admits publicly that no nuclear power station is safe from some forms of wilful aircraft impact.

The PM must also bear in mind the advice of Sir Jonathan Porritt in the Sustainable Development Commission's report earlier this year that "it is essential for the government to allow the fullest public consultation in developing a policy on nuclear power. Not doing so would compromise the principle of good governance and risks a huge public backlash against top-down decision-making".

This is a message for us all: it must be our decision, not the government's, whether we go on increasingly illuminating our failing world towards its damnation, or whether we step back and think quality instead of quantity in our life-styles. People die of hypothermia in this country because 40% of our social housing lacks cavity wall insulation, yet we prefer to equip everyone with television so they may bathe in affluent advertising, rather than keeping them warm.

I am grateful to Peter Lanyon for help with this column.