Following the disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, the nuclear power industry has the almost impossible task of justifying its existence.
In Britain the usual suspects have defended nuclear power. But along with the likes of Tory London mayor Boris Johnson, there are some surprising voices.
Green campaigner George Monbiot published a Guardian article last week arguing that nuclear power must continue to be an option.
Monbiot is no fool, nor is he a friend of big business or the nuclear industry. His support is conditional.
He argues that nuclear power is acceptable if it can be shown to be low carbon, disconnected from the military and there are solutions for the problem of waste.
His argument points to the only card the nuclear industry has left—its fake green credentials. An industry with an appalling environmental record has been rebranded as the green alternative to fossil fuels.
It is using the genuine fear of climate change to reposition itself.
But nuclear is not a green alternative—and it cannot be made safe.
In terms of what happens inside a reactor, nuclear power produces no greenhouse gases—the chemicals that cause climate change.
But almost every other part of the complex nuclear cycle does.
The mining of uranium, its transport and processing of nuclear fuel, the building of reactors and the storage of nuclear waste all emit greenhouse gases.
And these will increase, especially as uranium becomes harder to mine.
In 2008 the International Energy Agency showed that if nuclear capacity quadrupled worldwide by 2050, it would still only make up 10 percent of energy production.
It would require a new reactor being built every ten days.
And, according to Greenpeace, quadrupling nuclear capacity would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by less than 4 percent. That’s nowhere near what is needed to stop climate change.
The enormous quantities of nuclear waste produced also undermine nuclear’s “clean” image.
No one really knows what to do with the waste, which can remain toxic for hundreds of thousands of years.
There is no area on earth that has remained immune from earthquakes or other major environmental changes for that long.
Even the misnamed “reprocessing” of nuclear fuel creates more waste. Britain has thousands upon thousands of cubic metres of nuclear waste, including 75,000 cubic metres of uranium.
Nuclear power has a long relationship with the military.
The earliest reactors were built to produce material for bombs—the electricity generated was a useful extra that helped to justify the expense.
The depleted uranium that has poisoned Iraq is manufactured from by-products of the nuclear industry.
You cannot separate the civilian and military sides of nuclear power.
This brings us to the cost. Electricity made from nuclear power is only competitive in the market because of huge government subsidies.
The 2005 US energy bill granted $13 billion in subsidies and tax breaks to the industry.
In Britain the government has given the industry preferential tax breaks, guaranteed to help cover the cost of the clean-up of old power stations and capped the price of dealing with waste.
This shifts the cost of nuclear power—millions of pounds—from the industry onto ordinary people.
There is a genuine green alternative to this. It is to pump this money into a massive expansion of renewable energies—tidal, offshore wind and wave in particular. It is to reduce energy demand through insulation schemes.
It is to ban the tremendous waste of electricity that keeps office lights and advertising hoardings illuminated all night.
These things could reduce carbon emissions, cut energy use and create millions of jobs.
Why doesn’t every environmentalist argue this? Many, understandably, have lost faith in their governments over the climate.
They don’t see the potential for mass movements to win change.
But after Fukushima we have to build those movements—nuclear power is no alternative.
In the next article in this series I will look at whether renewable energy can meet our needs.
Martin Empson is the author of Climate Change: Why Nuclear Power is Not the Answer. It is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, online at www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk or on 020 7637 1848