Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The nuclear challenge - in Japan and everywhere

Back in the early 1980s I drove a green 2CV, a bit like this on, but all one shade of green, not two-toned.

On the back, stuck to its flat boot lid, I had a giant sticker (about 50cm across) saying ‘Nuclear Power, No thanks!’

This was a time when the anti-nuclear position was the only and obvious one to hold for all right-thinking (by which I mean, of course, left-thinking!) people. The anti-nuke position wasn’t only an environmental stance, it was also an anti-state, anti-THEM stance.

Various places declared themselves to be ‘nuclear free zones’ – some of these were major statements by whole countries (such as Austria); others were political stances taken by small regions. The first nuclear free zone declared in the UK was Manchester, and this remains so. UK nuclear-free local authorities refused to take part in civil defence exercises relating to nuclear war, which they thought were futile.

I remember Sheffield City Council declaring itself to be such a zone, part of a general bolshieness in that area that included the ‘People’s Republic of South Yorkshire’, and a prominent place in the 1984-85 miners’ strike

And that focuses the problem: nukes or coal? For many years the Green position has been: neither. For many years a simple oppositional position to all fossil-fuels has championed renewables as the way forward to generate electricity.

But two things have started to shift that perception. First, we are using ever more electricity. All our electronic devices, all our home gadgets and entertainment, our computers, the big servers that keep the internet functioning  . . . all of these guzzle up vast and increasing amounts of electricity. And if we succeed in switching from the internal combustion engine to electric cars, that will mean even more. The second question has come, ironically, from the success in getting renewable generation capacity constructed and installed. We can now see how good it is . . . and we can see its limitations. It’s no longer the fantasy future – it’s now, and we can see just what it can and can’t do.

There are plans to improve the reliability and ‘always-on’ capacity of renewables. One of these is the idea of a pan-European ‘super-grid’  that would combine: solar in southern Spain and North Africa; offshore wind in the UK and elsewhere; hydro and geothermal in Norway . . . and so on. The idea is that when the sun isn’t shining the wind will be blowing; excess power during the day can be used to pump water upwards in hydro systems, so that the gravity feed of water downwards can generate electricity during the night, etc. Technically and physically, it can be done; whether it can be done politically is another matter. And if the total power, at any time, is insufficient, how will it be decided who gets what? Images of the Russians shutting off gas supplies will dog such a project – can we really share equably across the whole of Europe and beyond? 

And so, slowly, over the past few years, a number of highly committed environmentalists have started to say: if we want to keep the lights on, if we want to lower carbon emissions, if we don’t want the industrialised world to collapse in a chaotic mess, then we’re going to have to put nuclear power into the mix. We can’t, actually, meet all our current needs (even with vastly improved energy efficiency) from renewables. It’s a difficult time for the green movement.

One of the clearest ‘green’ advocates of nuclear power now is Stewart Brand – author, environmentalist, best known for his work as the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog. An environmentalist before the word was coined, Brand’s most recent book Whole Earth Discipline: An Eco-Pragmatist Manifesto looks again at technologies we have dismissed. In the book, and in this challenging video interview, he argues that nuclear power might just be our green energy savior.

Closer to home, our own George Monbiot, never shy of controversy, uses the Japanese earthquake, tsunami and subsequent problems with the nuclear reactors to argue for nuclear power. Writing in his Guardian blog last week, he is headlined with:

Japan nuclear crisis should not carry weight in atomic energy debate - Nuclear power remains far safer than coal. The awful events in Fukushima must not spook governments considering atomic energy

He writes:

Before I go any further, and I'm misinterpreted for the thousandth time, let me spell out once again what my position is. I have not gone nuclear. But, as long as the following four conditions are met, I will no longer oppose atomic energy.
1. Its total emissions – from mine to dump – are taken into account, and demonstrate that it is a genuinely low-carbon option
2. We know exactly how and where the waste is to be buried
3. We know how much this will cost and who will pay
4. There is a legal guarantee that no civil nuclear materials will be diverted for military purposes
To these I'll belatedly add a fifth, which should have been there all along: no plants should be built in fault zones, on tsunami-prone coasts, on eroding seashores or those likely to be inundated before the plant has been decommissioned or any other places which are geologically unsafe. This should have been so obvious that it didn't need spelling out. But we discover, yet again, that the blindingly obvious is no guarantee that a policy won't be adopted.

And in the main newspaper this week:

Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power - Japan's disaster would weigh more heavily if there were less harmful alternatives. Atomic power is part of the mix

He writes:

You will not be surprised to hear that the events in Japan have changed my view of nuclear power. You will be surprised to hear how they have changed it. As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.

A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting. Yet, as far as we know, no one has yet received a lethal dose of radiation.

He goes on to debunk the idea that nice, clean, local sources of power could (or ever did) keep the wheels of society turning, and he concludes:

The energy source to which most economies will revert if they shut down their nuclear plants is not wood, water, wind or sun, but fossil fuel. On every measure (climate change, mining impact, local pollution, industrial injury and death, even radioactive discharges) coal is 100 times worse than nuclear power. Thanks to the expansion of shale gas production, the impacts of natural gas are catching up fast.

Yes, I still loathe the liars who run the nuclear industry. Yes, I would prefer to see the entire sector shut down, if there were harmless alternatives. But there are no ideal solutions. Every energy technology carries a cost; so does the absence of energy technologies. Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small. The crisis at Fukushima has converted me to the cause of nuclear power.

The message from both Brand and Monbiot, in quite different ways, is that we have to think, not only emote, about the harsh realities, and not romanticise what a green future might look like. If it’s going to work, it will have to be strategic, efficient and high-tech. There are too many people on the Earth now for any other solution in the foreseeable future. As Stewart Brand says: we have to be eco-pragmatists.
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  1. Today's Guardian (24 March) has a 'Response' from Jeremy Leggett to George Monbiot's article. He disagrees strongly with Monbiot. You can read his article at:

    Leggett has an 'interest' in that he's the founder and chairman of a solar energy company called Solar Century (

    See also

  2. It seems that this one will run and run! A good thing, too - we really need a public conversation about the whole issue. In today's Guardian (26 March) George Monbiot is in conversation with Caroline Lucas (Green Party MP for the Brighton Pavilion consitiuency). She asserts, "We've got a government that is explicitly designing electricity market reform regulations so as to make renewables less viable than nuclear." Read the whole conversation at