“WE nuclear people,” said US atomic pioneer Alvin Weinberg in 1972, “have made a Faustian bargain with society.” The deal was this: nuclear scientists gave us almost limitless electricity for our heaters, kettles and TVs, and all we had to accept in exchange was the ultimate risk of hell on earth.
In the last three decades, the pact hasn’t gone away, though it has changed. If Dr Faustus were with us now, the bargain the nuclear industry would have him strike with Mephistopheles would be one that would save us from the climate chaos caused by coal and oil pollution.
Nuclear power is back on the agenda with a bang in Britain. The speed with which it has moved centre stage in the political debate has taken everyone by surprise – including the scientists, civil servants and politicians that support it. Most people had naively assumed that the issue had been effectively killed off for at least a decade by the government’s energy policy White Paper in February 2003.
After years of investigations and discussions, it concluded by dismissing the industry’s call for a £10 billion programme to build 10 new nuclear power stations as an “unattractive option”. Nuclear power could not be ruled out for the future, it said, but there was no current economic case for it.
Yet now, just two years down the road, here we are rehearsing the same arguments again. Some suspect that this is the result of a poorly organised conspiracy by a powerful nuclear lobby, deeply embedded in the government establishment.
“The nuclear industry has grasped at climate change like a drowning man clutching a passing log,” said Tom Burke, a visiting professor at Imperial College, London, who was an environmental advisor to four ministers.
Public interest was stirred last year by a few leading “green” gurus coming out in favour of nuclear power. The most famous was the originator of the Gaia theory of the Earth as a self-regulating organism, Professor James Lovelock. He is linked with a small group known as Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy based near Paris. His argument is that because nuclear power emits much less carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas – than fossil fuels, it is the best technology available to combat the threat of climate change.
Pro-nuclear environmentalists, however, make up only a tiny fraction of the green movement, and they are not new. They can trace their ancestry back to those in the 1950s and 1960s who were so appalled at the destruction wrought by the atomic bombs dropped on Japan by the US in 1945, that they devoted their lives to “atoms for peace”.
There has also been a flurry of leaks from Westminster, all suggesting mounting pressure within government to take decisions on nuclear power. The latest, last weekend, was a memo to the new industry secretary Alan Johnson from his senior energy official Joan MacNaughton.
“It is generally easier to push ahead on controversial issues early in a new parliament”, she advised the minister. She also revealed that the environment secretary Margaret Beckett had been preventing the government’s review of climate change policy from considering nuclear power.
Ministers in London are sharply divided on the wisdom of building more nuclear stations, which may account for some of the leaks. But with the Prime Minister leaning in favour, and Gordon Brown at the Treasury worried about the public spending implications, it is difficult to predict what will happen.
Next month, Labour’s environmental campaign, the Socialist Environment and Resources Association, will be asked to back a motion criticising the nuclear lobby for using the valid concerns about climate change to try and convince ministers to resurrect nuclear power. According to the motion’s mover, energy expert Dr David Lowry, nuclear power is an “irrelevance” to combating climate change.
There are similar divisions among ministers at Holyrood, with the deputy enterprise minister Allan Wilson known to be in favour of nuclear power and First Minister Jack McConnell suspected of being against it. Liberal Democrat ministers have always been strongly anti-nuclear.
The Scottish Executive’s formal position is that it will not support the building of nuclear stations until the problem of nuclear waste is “resolved”. But it is far from clear – as the Greens’ co-convener Shiona Baird pointed out in the Scottish Parliament last week – what this means.
Whatever their views, Scottish ministers are doubtless conscious that nuclear power, long opposed by the Scottish National Party, is somewhat less than popular north of the Border. An opinion poll for the BBC during the election showed that only 17% of people in Scotland supported more nuclear stations, compared to 73% who backed more wind farms.
Can nuclear power help stop global warming?
According to Peter Roche, an Edinburgh-based energy consultant who used to work for Greenpeace, even if we could get 10 new nuclear power stations up and running by 2025, they would still only displace around 5% of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions.
The chances of getting those new power stations are not high. Worldwide, nuclear power has been in recession since the explosion at the Chernobyl reactor in Ukraine scattered radioactivity all over Europe in 1986. Outside the Far East, hardly any new reactors have been started, and the industry is being phased out in Germany, Sweden and Belgium.
Nevertheless, the Bush administration in the US is now preparing to launch a new nuclear power programme, and, perhaps, Blair is planning to follow suit. But in Britain nobody is talking of expanding the country’s nuclear capacity, merely replacing those that are scheduled to close down.
According to the Department of Trade and Industry, nine UK nuclear stations are due to close down before 2015, including the 1190-megawatt Hunterston B in North Ayrshire in 2011. Scotland’s other major nuclear station, at Torness in East Lothian, is due for closure in 2023, and three other plants, Hunterston A, Dounreay in Caithness and Chapelcross in Dumfries and Galloway, have already been shut.
If any new reactors are built, the first are most likely to be located in the south of England, close to where the power is needed. Only after that – and the Scottish Executive permitting – will any be planned for Scotland, and they would be sited at Hunterston, Chapelcross and, later, Torness.
Public opinion aside, there are major barriers to new nuclear stations. A new programme would likely be based on an untested US-designed reactor known as the AP1000, which is claimed to be cheaper and safer. But before it could be licensed for use in Britain, it would have to be fully assessed by the government’s Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. Unfortunately, as the Sunday Herald has previously revealed, the inspectorate is chronically short of staff, and has been embroiled in a morale-sapping work-to-rule for more than 18 months.
The former chief inspector of the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, Laurence Williams, told a meeting of the government’s Nuclear Safety Advisory Committee last November that evaluating an established international design would take 25 experienced inspectors about two years. It would take at least another year to recruit and train them, plus public inquiries which “would be a significant further drain on resources”.
It takes about 10 years to build a nuclear station from scratch, so according to Peter Roche, the earliest any new reactor could be up and running is 2018. This is seven years after Hunterston B is scheduled to close.
It is often forgotten that nuclear power, as a generator of electricity, can only avoid the pollution caused by burning coal, oil or gas in power stations. It can do nothing to prevent the vast amounts of carbon dioxide emitted by vehicles and farms.
“Energy efficiency can start reducing carbon dioxide emissions today,’’ argued Roche. ‘‘Just one or two efficiency measures, such as making sure all new central heating boilers and white goods are state-of-the-art, would be enough to displace the savings new reactors could make.”
Even representatives of the nuclear industry, when asked to comment on the prospect of new stations, seem unenthusiastic. A spokeswoman for the UK Atomic Energy Authority, which operates Dounreay, said: “Our mission today is very much about decommissioning our sites in a safe and publicly acceptable manner.”
British Energy, which runs Hunterston B and Torness, was similarly cool. “We have no mandate to explore new build, and you certainly won’t find us being distracted by bringing forward unsolicited proposals for building new nuclear capacity,” said company chairman Adrian Montague.
“Our job, quite simply, is to fix the existing fleet. It’s what we’ve told investors, it’s what the government expects, and it’s what we’ll do.’’
Do we need nuclear power?
At a UK level the last major independent analysis of the question was conducted by the Cabinet Office’s Performance and Innovation Unit, in preparation for the 2003 energy White Paper. It suggested that a combination of increased energy efficiency, the widespread use of combined heat and power stations and a boost in renewable energy sources such as wind and wave power could sustain an annual growth rate of 2%, while cutting carbon emissions.
In Scotland an investigation for the Scottish Executive in 2001 by energy consultants Garrad Hassan concluded that all forms of renewable energy in Scotland could potentially generate a massive 214 terawatt/hours of electricity a year.
That is more than four times as much as the 50 terawatt/hours generated north of the Border in 2002, almost a third of which was exported to England. Only about a sixth of the total is currently provided by the Hunterston B nuclear station.
“A combination of demand reduction and energy efficiency, along with increased renewable energy capacity in non-environmentally sensitive areas would make new nuclear power plants unnecessary to meet climate change targets, even with the planned closure of Hunterston B,” said Clifton Bain from the Royal Society for Protection of Birds in Scotland.
Dr Richard Dixon, head of policy at WWF Scotland in Aberfeldy, pointed out that Scotland had a quarter of all Europe’s renewable energy potential. “We can meet climate targets without resorting to new nuclear power,” he said. “Or we can waste our money and effort on building more nuclear reactors.”
This argument has long been countered by Brian Wilson, the ex-energy minister and former Labour MP for Cunninghame North, which covers the Hunterston nuclear stations. He has warned of the risks of relying too heavily on imported gas from abroad in the future.
“Renewables, gas, clean coal and nuclear all have their part to play in an energy mix that can satisfy the three classic criteria – security of supply, affordability and the drive against global warming,” he has argued.
Keith Parker, chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association, was encouraged by Tony Blair’s remark last week that the debate about climate change should include “serious consideration” of nuclear power. “Nuclear power can continue to make a significant contribution to securing future energy and environmental commitments,” he told the Sunday Herald.
What is wrong with nuclear power?
A common assumption about nuclear power is that it can be relied upon to keep churning out lots of power. The reality, as nuclear operators will sometimes admit, is rather different.
British Energy’s Montague says that it’s “no secret” that there are “reliability problems” with the advanced gas-cooled reactors such as those at Hunterston B and Torness. One problem is that some of the thousands of graphite bricks that surround the reactor cores are cracking, threatening the safe running of the plants.
The performance of British Energy’s reactors is worse than those in other parts of the world. According to Sig Berg, the managing director of the World Association of Nuclear Operators, the unplanned loss of nuclear generation in the UK was 12% in 2002, compared to under 2% in the US.
The cost of nuclear power is also daunting. Cleaning up the radioactive mess left at Dounreay, which only ever produced very small amounts of electricity, is likely to cost at least £4bn over the next four decades. The estimated total cost of cleaning up all Britain’s nuclear plants – which is being met by taxpayers – is £50bn.
The vulnerability of nuclear companies to price fluctuations was starkly demonstrated by the near-collapse of British Energy in 2002. It had to be bailed out by the government with a £650m loan from public funds.
One consequence of that was the company’s decision to close its Peel Park headquarters in East Kilbride. New documents released to the Sunday Herald last week under the Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act reveal that this triggered a severe staffing crisis that could have put safety at risk.
The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate imposed a 14-month legal bar on the relocation of staff because of the potential impact on safety due to loss of expertise, increased workloads and low morale. Most of the safety and engineering staff – 49 of them – refused to move to a new office at Barnwood in Gloucester.
An inspectorate report in December 2004 concluded that British Energy had failed in its aim of relocating staff. “British Energy’s intent to close Peel Park, and the consequential impact, has had an adverse effect on the staff with respect to stress, morale and uncertainty over their future,” it said.
British Energy, however, insisted that it had “successfully achieved its objective of enhancing operational focus” by creating a dedicated engineering service under one roof at Barnwood. “If there were ever any doubts about our ability to operate safely, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate would shut us down,” said a company spokeswoman.
Alongside fears about safety, there is the long-running saga of what to do with Britain’s 470,000 cubic metres of nuclear waste. Not to mention the 18 million cubic metres of soil and concrete thought to be have been contaminated with low-level radioactivity from leaks and spills at nuclear sites.
The government’s latest attempt to solve this problem – asking a group of independent experts to come up with recommendations – is in trouble. One scientist, Keith Baverstock, has been kicked off the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management (CoRWM), while another has decided to withdraw. Both are thoroughly disillusioned by the process.
Baverstock, formerly a senior radiation adviser with the World Health Organisation in Europe, accused CoRWM of wasting time on “amateurish” attempts to draw up a list of options. “The public health aspects of the problem are being ignored and trivialised by people who do not sufficiently understand the issue,” he said.
CoRWM is due to submit its final report to ministers in July 2006, but this will only suggest how the waste should be disposed of, not where. An official shortlist from the 1990s of 12 sites suitable for underground repositories – many of which are suspected of being in Scotland – has been kept secret by the government.
Yesterday CoRWM’s chairman Gordon MacKerron warned that a decision to go ahead with building new nuclear stations now would make it more difficult to work out what to do with the waste. “It would complicate our process, and some stakeholders might not take part,” he said. “It might mean that the level of overall public confidence in our process might be lacking.”
Strangely, what critics regard as the most dangerous aspect of nuclear power is sometimes the least talked about. Joined at the hip to the military industry, nuclear power depends on technologies which can also be used to make fuel for atomic bombs. This essential ambiguity is at the root of some of the most destabilising confrontations in the world today.
Britain is enriching uranium at Capenhurst near Cheshire at the same time as urging Iran not to enrich uranium at Natanz. The British government extracts tonnes of plutonium at Sellafield in Cumbria as it tries to persuade North Korea not to do likewise at Yongbyon.
The global tensions that inevitably result from these attempts to control the spread of nuclear weapons disturb many. It doesn’t take a genius to understand how terribly high the stakes are – nor a Dr Faustus to show us where we could end up.