18 August 2007

Still time to change fait-accompli decision?

By Jacqui McCarney

Last year, Greenpeace won an injunction forcing the Government to re-consult on nuclear energy and no government decision for new nuclear power stations is lawful until this public consultation is completed. Yet, during PMQs on July 4th, Gordon Brown apparently ignored the Court's ruling and sabotaged the ongoing consultation by stating that: "We have made the decision to continue with nuclear power."

Most people, including many Labour backbenchers, see nuclear energy as a disastrous, dangerous diversion – both literally and economically. Even those supporting the Government, like most in Conservative party, see it as a nasty choice ‘of last resort’ given the industry's long record of accidents.

You can be sure that none would welcome any new stations close to their backyard when Chernobyl fallout in 1986 contaminated about 40% of Europe and restrictions still affect over 300 farms in the UK. The Russian Academy of Medical Sciences declared in 2006 that 212,000 people have died as a direct consequence of the disaster.

Closer to home, a serious radioactive leak went undetected for 8 months at the UK Thorp reprocessing plant in 2005. The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate (NII) found the plant "condoned the ignoring of alarms" and failed to learn from previous incidents.

Last month's earthquake in Japan triggered a radioactive leak at the Kashiwazaki nuclear power station, and leading seismologist Professor Katsuhiko Ishi-bashi says that warnings have been repeatedly ignored – luck, as much as anything, had helped to avert a combination of earthquake and nuclear meltdown capable of destroying millions of lives.

Despite industry denial, a review published in the European Journal of Cancer Care, July 2007, concluded that rates of leukaemia are higher in children living near nuclear plants.

The former head of M15 said recently it remains a real possibility that terrorists may attempt a radiological or even nuclear attack, as Independent consultant John Large has warned that our nuclear infrastructure is vulnerable to sabotage.

The difficulties of de-coupling civil nuclear power from nuclear weapons are demonstrated by the ongoing tensions with Iran and North Korea. Dr Rebecca Johnson, former senior adviser to the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission says "the only realistic way to minimise the dangers of contamination and proliferation is to wind down nuclear power and eliminate nuclear weapons."

However, just economics alone should be enough to convince a former chancellor PM to reconsider his predetermined views. Nuclear is simply just not profitable without subsidies, and it has bled funding from other cheaper and much more socially acceptable technologies for decades.

Operators have limited insurance liability in the case of an accident, anything over £700 million is covered by the taxpayer. So also, security and bills for radioactive waste and decommissioning and cleaning up the current generation of stations is estimated at £75 billion. Will our grandchildren, living in a less stable world be able to cope with this fiscal burden?

A graph on page 372 of the Stern Review shows just how much money has been wasted on nuclear energy research and development across IEA countries since 1974 – well over 50% of the total of some $300billion. Renewables have a meager single figure percentage – yet we would not face the current clean energy crisis if we had invested in them from the 1970s.

Figure 16.8 from the Stern review

Figure 16.8 from the Stern review

When 70% of centralised, large scale power generation is wasted in heat and electricity cables, policies for demand reduction, energy efficiency, and smaller, decentralised renewables are key to preventing climate change (see (Micro) power to the people! and Blue energy: sea snakes, stingrays and lagoons).

Graph from Allan Jones' presentation

Graph from Allan Jones' presentation.

The UK is particularly suitable for developing energy from tides, waves, geothermal, wind, solar, biomass and gas from landfill sites. The UK and Norfolk are in a prime position to be at the forefront of the renewable energy industry with all the economic benefits which would follow.

Although the government seems unable to think innovatively and sensibly about our energy future some local communities are acting independently to build up their resilience to the challenges ahead and at the same time reduce their carbon footprint. The transition town movement that is gathering momentum is trail blazing radically different community based, decentralised microgeneration.

Despite Gordon Brown’s predetermined and illegal policy statements, the consultation should be an opportunity for serious scrutiny exposing how a huge bleeding of resources into nuclear will divert us from developing the energy strategy that really could help prevent climate chaos. To prevent this undemocratic fait accompli, take part in the government's consultation on nuclear power at nuclearpower2007.direct.gov.uk.

I am grateful to Anne Dismorr of the http://www.newnuclearpowernothanks.org/ campaign for help in researching this column.