Mary Black and Andrew Stone

It was looking increasingly ominous. ‘Government sources’ were leaking that New Labour, having pursued a ‘rule nothing out’ policy on nuclear power for its first two terms, was intent on initiating a new reactor building programme immediately after the election. These rumours were strengthened when a confidential briefing note from Joan MacNaughton, the director general of energy policy at the Department of Trade and Industry, counselled urgent new nuclear build. ‘It is generally easier to push ahead on controversial issues early in a new parliament,’ she advised with barely concealed cynicism in a document leaked to the Observer on 8 May.

Yet the major lobbying push by the nuclear industry and its government supporters has, at the time of writing, still to get into gear. The nuclear sceptic Margaret Beckett, defying Whitehall gossip, survived the reshuffle as energy secretary. And according to a further leak to the Independent, the US’s desire for ‘clean nuke’ development as part of any G8 agreement on climate change has been ruled out by British negotiators (though only on the basis that it is up to individual governments to decide their own ‘energy mix’). The explanation for this apparent change of heart lies in a very different, much more dangerous kind of leak.

On 19 April managers at the Thorp reprocessing plant in Sellafield, Cumbria, realised that some of their spent fuel was missing. The radioactive fuel, containing enough plutonium to make 20 nuclear weapons, was dissolved in 83,000 litres of nitric acid – half the volume of an Olympic swimming pool – on the plant’s stainless steel floor. It was later revealed that the leak, springing from a badly designed pipe, may have gone undetected for up to nine months. Thorp has been forced to suspend operations, with suggestions that it may not reopen.

Optimists might conclude that the government has been given pause for thought, but the signs are that this is merely a tactical delay. Blair has stated that climate change will be a major issue at the G8 summit. His plan is to seek domestic backing to build ten new nuclear power stations by couching them in environmental rhetoric, as a ‘clean’ alternative to electricity generated from CO2-emitting fossil fuels.

These claims have found some high profile support from environmental theoretician James Lovelock and Bishop Hugh Montefiore, formerly a leading figure in Greenpeace. But this is not the mass conversion of environmentalists touted by the nuclear lobby. Lovelock has been on record for two decades as seeing nuclear as a ‘lesser evil’ to climate change. Montefiore’s position is likewise not one of enthusiasm but resignation that renewable alternatives are not sufficiently developed, that we will have to live with a greater use of nuclear until they are.

Yet they are profoundly mistaken. The proposed nuclear power stations, which would take a decade to come online, would be a fairly tardy stopgap. And nuclear power is not carbon neutral as some of its supporters lazily claim. Throughout its lifecycle significant amounts of greenhouse gasses are emitted, particularly during plant construction, uranium mining and transportation of fuels and waste. Admittedly these are small by comparison to gas, coal and oil generation, but the vast expenditure poured into nuclear is not, as is often claimed, complementary to renewable energy but a barrier to its development.

Exorbitant bills

Between 1974 and 1998 the industrialised nations spent around ?100 billion in today’s money on nuclear research. In Britain the industry received almost ?8 billion in subsidies during the 1990s. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), the quango set up by the government in April, saved the privatised British Energy from bankruptcy by taking on its decommissioning liabilities. Some ?4.5 billion has been set aside from the public purse. In total more than ?46 billion of taxpayers’ money has been made available for dealing with waste and decommissioning.

This exorbitant bill – which makes the marginal research investment in wind, wave, solar and tidal power of ?53 million per year pale by comparison – does not even include high level waste, the permanent costs of which are still unclear. Way back in 1976 the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution complained that ‘we believe that a quite inadequate effort has been devoted to the problems of long term waste management and that there should be no substantial expansion of nuclear power until the feasibility of a method of safe disposal of high level wastes for the indefinite future has been established beyond reasonable doubt.’ A committee has been set up by the government to finally report on this question next year, 30 years later.

Britain has 470,000 cubic metres of nuclear waste – enough to fill the Albert Hall five times over. Most high level waste is stored above ground at Sellafield, where vast quantities of spent fuel are imported to separate (or reprocess) plutonium. Sellafield contributes more than three quarters of the collective radiation dose to European Union states. On average people in Britain live 26 miles away from one of more than 30 radioactive waste sites. Any new nuclear build will only add to the problem. The leak at the Thorp nuclear waste reprocessing plant in May has forced British Nuclear Fuels to shut one of its main facilities, and the clean-up costs will run into millions. The plant was meant to provide ?560 million of the NDA’s ?2.2 billion budget for this year.

Thorp has also raised the question of safety in an industry where any accident could be catastrophic. The reactor explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power station 19 years ago resulted in 31 immediate fatalities and more than 200 cases of severe radiation sickness among firefighters and workers sent in to contain the subsequent leak. Ukranian health authorities estimate that the final death toll could be as high 125,000 deaths from cancer associated with the accident. If the wind had been blowing in the other direction, towards the more densely populated Kiev, the fatalities could have been much greater.

The nuclear industry has a history of secrecy and cover-ups. For instance, in the aftermath of the Windscale (now Sellafield) fire in 1957, the extent of radiation release was censored and even the wind direction record was falsified. Such dishonesty does not add any credibility to industry claims about the safety of new designs.

There is still dispute about the health effects of background nuclear radiation. A much-publicised study into childhood cancers by the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment recently gave Britain’s 13 power stations a clean bill of health, contrary to the findings of many earlier studies. However, it did find increased cancer incidence around other nuclear facilities such as the Aldermaston weapons site in Berkshire and the Sellafield reprocessing plant. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive previously found that childhood leukaemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma are 14 times the national average for the children of Sellafield workers. The plant also encourages the secretive shipment of dangerous waste around the world, with unquantifiable health and environmental impacts.

Another objection to nuclear power is that it would be profoundly unequal as the huge expense involved in building these plants means they are only viable on huge economies of scale with large state subsidies. This is why barely 30 countries house nuclear reactors at present. Whereas a few favoured allies have received nuclear exports (such as Iran from Britain in the days of the Shah), the major powers generally want to limit proliferation of nuclear power precisely because of its links to weaponry – which is made possible by the enrichment of uranium and the production of plutonium carried out at ‘civilian’ nuclear plants such as Sellafield.

Military links

Environmental campaigners across Africa, Asia and Latin America have consistently argued that climate change is a global problem and requires solutions that can be applied throughout the world. As well as bearing the brunt of climate change itself, these countries also suffer from other adverse effects of energy policy in the richest countries in the world.

The crippling financial costs of nuclear power were not immediately obvious to its pioneers, as their claims that it would become ‘too cheap to meter’ amply demonstrate. But the industry has never been subjected to the whims of free market competition. A few ministers in the Attlee cabinet secretly launched the initial programme as part of developing a bomb-making capacity. The profligacy of the intervening years is only explicable in terms of the intimate links between the military and civilian sectors.

While many companies or even whole industries were nationalised in the period from the 1930s to the early 1970s, nuclear energy was unique in having been consciously state developed (other technologies emerged as by-products of military research). Five consortiums were created to bid for plant production contracts, but they were awarded according to a barely concealed rota. The neo-liberal era has not fundamentally changed this symbiotic state/corporate relationship, as the government bail-out of British Energy shows. This should not be too much of a surprise. Global military spending has risen for the last seven years, to over $1 trillion for the first time since the Cold War. Government efforts to secure energy supplies-and thus profits-have not been hindered in the slightest by their proclaimed adherence to free market principles. State intervention is considered quite acceptable in these circumstances.

In opposition to such destructive priorities, environmental campaigners are increasingly questioning solutions that focus narrowly on particular technologies rather than evaluating the whole problem. Big business does not wish to question the problems entrenched in a system of chaotic competition, which causes over-production and the dominance of the oil and car multinationals. John Bellamy Foster has called this the ‘auto-industrial complex’, where huge units of economic power exert an inertial force against objectively progressive technological developments.

Nuclear energy plays an insurance role in this system. It is the logical sanctuary for a politician like Tony Blair who is convinced that people ‘won’t make lifestyle changes’ – code for ‘business will resist fundamental change’. It is no coincidence that nuclear power found renewed establishment favour in the mid-1970s – as a way of undermining the bargaining power both of the Opec states and of striking miners – even as the extent of its running costs were becoming clear. A solution to climate change requires systemic changes and an overview of all aspects of energy. At best nuclear power is a block to this process – at worst a lethal time bomb. Instead we need to implement a range of radical measures, including the use of renewable energy sources, energy reduction programmes, alternative fuels for transport and improved public transport.

The nuclear lobby have been pushing their case hard over the last year, and putting out much false information in the process, with wind power in particular facing a barrage of misleading attacks. The lobby has exaggerated costs and the problems caused by the intermittent nature of wind, solar and tidal power, while downplaying the cost and safety implications of nuclear power. They certainly seem to have caught Blair’s ear. However, this does not guarantee that they will succeed in pushing the country towards nuclear power.

Opposition to nuclear power runs deep, and includes among its number many scientists – quite a change from the 1950s when many would favourably counterpose nuclear power to nuclear weapons. At the G8 summit we have a chance to argue for an alternative worldview that doesn’t ask us to choose between two models of climatic destruction.

The huge anti-war sentiment in the country should also be a source of opposition to nuclear power. The countries with nuclear power stations are the countries which have nuclear missile programmes (or those with close alliances to those who do) – it does not make sense as a source of power otherwise.

Nuclear power programmes also provide nuclear scientists, and plutonium for nuclear missile programmes, and it seems no coincidence that Blair now wants to start a new nuclear missiles programme. We should demand measures to deal with climate change at the G8 summit protests-and ensure that these move towards a sustainable society based on peace and equality, not on war and poverty.