By Mary Black
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Environment: Another Wasted Opportunity

This article is over 17 years, 5 months old
'The government must no longer allow delays in developing a long term radioactive waste management strategy to be used as a pretext for deferring decisions on the future of nuclear power...
Issue 292

‘To do so would seriously narrow the range of options open to the government in meeting their longer term energy and environmental goals. The small uncertainties associated with radioactive waste disposal that still exist must be balanced against the spectre of global warming: the consequences of not doing enough to limit greenhouse gas emissions may be catastrophic.’

So wrote the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee in their recent report, which criticised the government while neatly demonstrating how pro-nuclear arguments can be wrapped up in the language of saving the environment.

Other arguments that are music to the ears of pro-nuclear campaigners include the suggestion that modern reactors produce lower waste volumes than those currently installed and so would not be adding much to the existing problem, and that renewable energy may be unable to contribute as much to Britain’s electricity needs as the government expects. These arguments do not stand up to close examination.

Firstly, as the report has to acknowledge, the question of how to dispose of the existing 764 cubic metres of high level radioactive waste currently stored mostly above ground at Sellafield, along with far greater volumes of intermediate and low level waste, is a huge problem. After all, this waste will continue to pose a health risk for thousands of years. As Greenpeace points out, all nuclear power stations including new ones create large quantities of radioactive waste for which there is no safe solution, and any increase in exposure increases the risk of harm. Last month the government overturned existing policy in favour of allowing foreign nuclear waste to be ‘disposed of’ in Britain. As a CND spokeperson said, the government is turning Britain into the world’s ‘nuclear dumping ground for the sake of a quick buck’. The only way to ‘solve’ the problem of nuclear waste is to not produce it in the first place.

Secondly, the attempt to present nuclear power as less threatening to the environment than climate change disguises the fact that it is inherently unsafe and just one accident could devastate our health, the environment and the economy for generations. Even Westinghouse, the nuclear power plant design company owned by BNFL, acknowledges that, no matter what the designers intend to happen, they can not engineer what the operators will do when faced with a potential catastrophe. The much-heralded new ‘safer’ designs have not yet been built anywhere in the world so claims about their safety should be treated with caution.

The Lords also mention concerns over vulnerability of waste to terrorist attack. Surely the same concerns could be extended to new nuclear power stations! And in terms of what makes the world a dangerous place, as Tony Benn says, ‘Nor are Britain’s civil nuclear power stations peaceful as for many years, and still possibly today, the plutonium they produce was sent to fuel the American nuclear weapons programme, making them into what were, in effect, bomb factories.’

Finally, the scepticism over what renewable energy can contribute is backed up only by a reference to a previous report written by the same committee. This report criticised the low levels of government funding for renewable energy related Research & Development and expressed concern over the total reliance on market forces. But it managed to carefully say that it has no opinion to express on nuclear power, while giving the arguments of the pro-nuclear lobby a boost. There is no scientific reason why our future energy needs could not be supplied by carbon-free renewable energy sources-any barriers are political and economic.

Only a properly planned and funded renewable energy programme for the future will be sufficient. We need solutions that can be applied anywhere in the world. It is people in developing countries who will be most adversely affected by climate change – they already have the poorest supplies of energy and are the most likely to suffer from the dumping of nuclear waste from developed countries.

We should demand that the government stands up to the pressure from oil and gas multinationals, as well as from the nuclear industry, and that it stops relying on the market to deliver solutions to climate change.

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