Thursday, 10 January 2008

Going Nuclear

In a rare outbreak of common sense, it looks like the Government is set to stare down the alarmists and invest in a new generation of nuclear power-stations. John Hutton, secretary of state for Business, today announced that "New nuclear power should have a role to play in the future energy mix".

What a change from just a few years ago, when Energy minister Brian Wilson claimed that "Investment in nuclear would be an expensive distraction from the real priority of supporting renewables and energy efficiency". Today the same Brian Wilson says that "the maintenance of nuclear's current share of our power generation mix is simply a sensible, medium-term contribution to a balanced energy policy."

And about time too. Nuclear power is efficient, clean, affordable, reliable and, above all, low carbon. It doesn't pollute the atmosphere, depend on the vagaries of the weather or Mr Putin, isn't influenced by middle-east politics or menaced by Islamist extremists. Well-publicised disasters of the past have as little connection with modern nuclear reactors as my laptop does with the old machines that used to fill up a room and require supplies of punched cards in order to calculate 2 + 2.

Ah yes, say the opponents, but what about the waste? Surely nuclear power produces vast amounts of radioactive material that will make vast areas uninhabitable for millennia? Or else turn the locals into green-haired mutants with flourescent stomachs and unpredictable numbers of toes.

Another myth. In fact, as the Scientific American reports, nuclear residue is less radioactive than that produced from coal. Fly ash—a by-product of burning coal for power—contains up to 100 times more radiation than nuclear waste. This is because coal contains significant traces of uranium and thorium, which are released when the coal is burned for fuel. They then make their way into the surrounding soil, where they are absorbed by crops. A study in 1978 found that people living around coal-fired power stations had up to four times as much radioactive material in their bodies attributable to the coal-residue than those who lived near a nuclear facility had from the fission.

But this was still minute when compared with the background radiation to which everyone is exposed, wherever they live. The real danger from coal-burning comes from the sulphur dioxide (which causes acid rain) as well as the output of greenhouse gases. There's no shortage of coal, either. Coal fired plants in India and China will be smogging up the planet for decades to come.

So why the knee-jerk reaction against nuclear power? Is it just that some (mainly on the left) cannot hear the word "nuclear" without seeing a mushroom cloud? Or is the unease more profound than that? Nuclear power represents the closest approach the human race has made to the divine. It interferes with matter at its most fundamental level, rearranging the very elements themselves and releasing the hidden power of the universe. Early nuclear pioneers were often compared to the medieval alchemists whose ambition was to transmute one substance into another. No less than the proponents of genetic engineering, who are subject to similar superstitious doubts, nuclear scientists can be accused of playing God.

Myth from Prometheus to Faust (and on to Frankenstein) assures us that interference with such fundamental laws of nature will produce a reckoning. At its most basic, nuclear power looks "arrogant". The idea of "nuclear waste" is so powerful because it looks like the wages of sin, the sin being that of pride. Whereas what could be more natural than harnessing the wind and the sun, forces which nature itself has delivered up as its bounty? Natural is good, even if "natural" in this context means despoiling the environment with vast forests of hideous, expensive, inefficient, clanking bird-mincers whose output scarcely if at all manages to offset the enormous subsidies required to fund their construction. Even their manifest ugliness, however, proclaims their virtue, as though by subjecting our landscape to such blots we are somehow making a sacrifice for the greater good.

Windpower is a delusion fostered by wishful thinking, which is to say by good intentions. But of course the environmental movement is built of good intentions, because the costs that would be entailed by doing what would actually be needed to prevent global warming, or even rein it in, are more than the global economy could bear. Far better to commit ourselves to wasteful but morally wholesome schemes of wind "power", or the even more environmentally devastating production of "bio-fuel", than face up to the really tough choices.


jakataka said...

what about them there sun powered turbine wotsits? you know sunlight + (big) magnifying glass + water tank + turbine = free (eventually) electricity!!

nuclear waste may well be as harmless as you say, but I doubt you'd want any in your back garden, no?

Mike said...

The article is talking about a 1978 study that compared people radiation levels in people living near coal plants vs. people living near nuclear reactors. I don't see anything in there about spent fuel rods, spent fuel, or any of the worst kinds of nuclear waste. In fact, they make no verifiable claims about nuclear waste at all.

I appreciate skepticism as much as the next guy, but this seems more like contrarianism.