The very concept of a “nuclear renaissance” is such an assault on the senses that it seems that only a madman could come up with it. Yet today Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy will agree to build a new generation of Anglo-French nuclear power stations, with the aim of becoming the world’s largest exporters of nuclear technology.
Trade and Energy Minister John Hutton has already offered a terrifying insight into what the two governments have in mind. Speaking to delegates at the Unite union conference, Hutton claimed that Britain can become “the gateway to a new nuclear renaissance across Europe”. The potential scale of the investment is “breathtaking”, he said, and added: "There has never been a greater global demand for finance, equipment and skills to build and operate nuclear power stations. I want Britain to be leading the world in the development and application of this new generation of low carbon power technology."
The UK should not only replace its 23 existing nuclear reactors, but opt for a huge expansion. With “no artificial cap to constrain the potential of new build in the UK” the industry could create thousands of jobs and “the prize could be massive". That weasel phrase “no artificial cap” means the government believes anyone trying to stand in the way is guilty of creating “artificial” blockages to an economic bonanza. So let’s look at some “artificial” blockages.
First of all, in no way is nuclear a “low carbon option”. Construction of a nuclear power station would emit 20 million tonnes of CO2. It would take 100 years to generate sufficient “carbon free” electricity to offset this carbon cost. A 100 megawatt nuclear reactor needs 160 tonnes of uranium each year, processed from 16 million tonnes of rock and releasing 320 tonnes of CO2. Uranium is a non-renewable resource, which is itself already running out.
The drive to mine in new areas is opposed by indigenous communities from Namibia, Australia, Canada and the Black Hills of Dakota. To obtain one tonne of uranium means mining and milling 98,000 tonnes of rock. The refining process leaves 10% of the uranium behind, dumped as radioactive sludge. Wherever it has been mined, it has wrecked the health of people, animals and eco-systems. Here’s another “artificial blockage”. Where is the spent radioactive fuel to be stored? The government’s only plan so far is to offer bribes to some of the poorest communities if they will accept to have storage facilities.
These facts about nuclear energy are summarised in A World to Win’s book Running a Temperature, an action plan for the eco-crisis . It also sets out basic principles for an alternative approach. It proposes a massive investment of public money to insulate people’s homes. The book points out that centralised energy generation wastes power, and proposes instead the formation of local democratically-elected energy groups, which could plan the right combination of energy efficiency measures and local power generation to meet their community’s needs. They would, as far as possible, use renewable resources.
For New Labour, climate change is now simply a business opportunity – their unthinking reflex is always to support the option that suits the global corporations and generates the most profit. The challenge that we face is not just making the transition beyond oil, but the transition beyond the drive for profit, which is threatening our survival. Such a change can only be brought about by a transformation of ownership of the energy companies and the states that promote their interests.