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Wind power, not nuclear power

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Issue 1757

What socialists say

Wind power, not nuclear power

By Paul McGarr

NEW LABOUR could be set to launch a new generation of nuclear power stations. Energy minister Brian Wilson, a long-time backer of nuclear power, has been given the go-ahead to conduct a “review” of energy policy by Tony Blair. New Labour is following the lead of US president George W Bush, who also plans a new wave of nuclear plants.

In 1986 the Chernobyl nuclear power station in Ukraine exploded, spewing deadly radiation across half of Europe. It seemed to mark the beginning of the end for nuclear power. Now the most dangerous and environmentally destructive form of energy is being reinvented as a “green” alternative to fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas. Nuclear power supporters say that, unlike fossil fuel power stations, nuclear power does not generate the greenhouse gases which drive global warming.

Nuclear power was introduced in the 1950s by governments like Britain and the US which wanted to produce plutonium for use in atomic weapons. To help justify this they claimed they could also have “atoms for peace”, with nuclear power safely producing electricity “too cheap to meter”. From the beginning the reality was different.

In 1957 a huge fire at Windscale in Cumbria, now called Sellafield, showered radiation across large parts of northern Britain. The government covered up the true extent of the disaster for years afterwards. A string of other disasters, like that in 1979 at Three Mile Island in the US, exposed the reality of nuclear power.

Nuclear power also creates a deadly radioactive waste. It remains lethal for hundreds of thousands of years, and no one has yet found a way to safely dispose of it.

Nuclear power is also hugely expensive. Even with the massive investment and subsidies it has received from successive governments it produces electricity at about double the unit cost of, say, gas. In Britain it would have long gone out of business were it not, for example, for the 7.8 billion in subsidies governments put in during the 1990s.

We do need to slash the greenhouse gas emissions which drive climate change. That could be done without any need for nuclear power. A key step would be massive investment in public transport to curb car and lorry use, major factors in global warming.

Insisting that homes are properly insulated and taking elementary energy efficiency measures could, says the government’s royal commission on climate change, cut household energy use by over a third in Britain. Most important of all, there is no reason why we cannot quickly move to generating electricity from clean and safe renewable energy sources like wind, wave and solar power.

These do not pollute, do not leave any waste, do not generate any greenhouse gases at all. Already wind turbines can produce electricity at about the same price as the cheapest fossil fuel, gas-between 2p and 3p per unit. Wind is cheaper than coal and much cheaper than nuclear, and this is without the massive investment which could make the manufacture of wind turbines much cheaper than now.

Even solar power, quite practicable even in Britain as it depends on light and not sunshine, can be produced for around 7p a unit. With serious investment that too could fall to affordable levels. The capacity for wind turbine generated electricity in Britain is immense. Onshore wind turbines could, say the government’s own reports, potentially meet Britain’s electricity needs.

The far greater potential of offshore wind farms, located in shallow waters around the coast, could meet much more. Even the government has been forced to recognise this, and suggests that by 2025 around 25 percent of Britain’s electricity could come from wind. And the European Commission says that a modest 10 billion a year investment across Europe (just 666 million a year for each member state) could in ten years achieve a target of 12 percent of all European energy needs coming from renewable sources like wind, wave and solar power.

Energy policy is sharply political. The Tories put almost 1 billion a year subsidy into the “dash for gas” in the first half of the 1990s. This was designed to weaken the power of the miners and the NUM union. With a massive programme of public investment it would be possible relatively quickly to shift the whole of Britain’s energy generation over to wind, and other renewable sources.

This would mean taxing the rich and big business to fund that investment, and the parallel investment in public transport and better insulation. And it would also mean challenging the hold of the oil, gas, car and tyre corporations which make money from the reckless burning of fossil fuels.

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