Nuclear power is back on the march. Reviled and rejected for 25 years as man's most dangerous and unsustainable fuel source, its friends are now billing nuclear power as the only practical way of countering climate change, oil shocks and landscape destruction in the west.
So, is it possible that public opinion is wrong, and that nuclear should be the fuel of choice of the future?
Absolutely, says Tony Blair, who last month told MPs that America was pressing Britain to re-examine the case for building a new generation of nuclear power stations. Nuclear must stay on the agenda "if you are serious about the issue of climate change".
Definitely, says the independent scientist James Lovelock, who has repeated his lifelong support for nuclear energy and recently argued that civilisation is in "imminent danger" from global warming and must use nuclear power - "the one safe, available, energy source" - to avoid catastrophe.
Perhaps, say some of Britain's leading environmental thinkers, who are calling for a debate about whether nuclear needs to be reassessed, and whether it should even be compared to other forms of renewable energy.
Electricity generation is responsible for about one third of worldwide greenhouse gases and, according to the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), nuclear power, which provides 16% of the world's electricity, saves roughly 600m tonnes of carbon emissions per year. This is almost twice the total amount the so far unratified global warming Kyoto Protocol treaty is designed to save.
On emissions, nuclear compares well with renewables, says the agency. The nuclear power chain, from uranium mining to waste disposal and including reactor and construction emits roughly 2-6 grams of carbon per kilowatt-hour. This, it says, is about the same as wind and solar power, and two orders of magnitude below coal, oil and even natural gas.
With world electricity demand expected to increase at least 30% and possibly up to 100% on 1990 figures by 2020, the World Nuclear Association says nuclear is now not just an option but a necessity for survival. "With carbon emissions threatening the very stability of the biosphere, the security of our world requires a massive transformation to clean energy," says Ian Hore-Lacy of the London-based lobby group.
But the nuclear industry is almost at a standstill in member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. No new nuclear station has been ordered in the US for 25 years, and only one is being built in western Europe, in Finland. Germany, Belgium, Holland and Sweden are to phase out existing plants, and Austria, Denmark and Ireland have stated policies against nuclear. In many other places, including Britain, there is little or no public support.
Nuclear has, however, found an important niche market in Asia. Of 27 stations now under construction worldwide, 16 are in China, India, Japan and South Korea. China and India both intend at least to quadruple their nuclear output and have started nine new power plants in the past four years and have 10 more under construction.
"They are going flat out to develop civil nuclear power," says Hore-Lacy. "Brazil is also reviving its plans for nuclear and South Africa is waiting to get the financial go-ahead. If you factor in the carbon, then the economics looks [even] more favourable for nuclear."
He expects the industry's next big push to be in America and Europe, where growing awareness of climate change is worrying governments committed to cutting emissions. On the back of anti-wind power sentiment voiced by celebrities like David Bellamy and Sir Bernard Ingham, the industry is now working with the Bush administration to persuade governments to commission a new generation of stations. In Britain, the crunch will come in 2006, when the renewable energy strategy will be reviewed. If wind power is found not to be meeting targets then pressure to commission new nuclear stations will be enormous.
Nuclear now has powerful advocates around government who say it is the best way to survive climate change. "One advantage is that the technology is known," says Sir John Houghton, former head of the Met Office and the UN's intercontinental panel on climate change, in a new edition of Global Warming, the Complete Briefing.
"They can be built now and therefore contribute to the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions ... estimates are that the cost of nuclear electricity is similar to the cost of electricity from natural gas when the additional cost of capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide is added."
Sir Crispin Tickell, former UK ambassador to the UN, who famously introduced Margaret Thatcher to the environment and has advised governments on sustainable development, has said that the word nuclear was banned from Downing street, but is now being reassessed out of necessity. "The problems of true cost, safety, proliferation, security, risk and the rest should be examined in a complete overall assessment of nuclear against other forms of renewable energy to lay a proper foundation for debate and future policy," he said recently. "All over the world people have to change their ways and remodel their thinking. Otherwise Nature will do what she has done to over 99% of species that have ever lived, and do the job for us."
Other environmentalists, traditionally hostile to nuclear, say that growing understanding of climate change is leading them to question old assumptions. "It's important that environmentalists don't become fundamentalists [just] following the 1970s line," says Paul Allen, development director at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth. "We've got to look at all the arguments. We have to engage in the debate. Nuclear is one of the arguments that must be considered. We should not just write it off."
Allen says he is not endorsing nuclear, but is trying to keep an open mind. Nuclear costs, he says, must include the security, insurance, decommissioning, long term storage and waste disposal costs, as well as the energy needed to build the plants. "For me [nuclear] is not a winner, but let's do the calculations," he says.
Keith Taylor, new joint principal speaker of the Green party, agrees that the worst nuclear disaster would not be as serious as the worst possible climate change. However, he adds that this does not justify using nuclear power, which he says is now subsidised in Britain by £2m a day. "But no one group has all the solutions," he says. "No one can afford to be dogmatic. It's important to listen to each other."
The IAEA does not believe that nuclear power can grow fast enough to combat global warming. Last month, as part of the celebrations for 50 years of civil nuclear power, director general Dr Mohamed El Baradei said that even if the global economy grew strongly, nuclear power would only grow about 70% over the next 25 years and its share of world energy would proportionately fall because of the more rapid expansion of other electricity sources.
He concluded that for the rural poor in developing countries, off-grid, small-scale, localised renewables are the best power solution, but that nuclear suited the needs of big, expanding cities, and countries with large centralised power generation.
But a global nuclear programme, of the scale needed to push its share well ahead of other forms of fossil fuel electricity generation, could cost hundreds of billions of dollars to get up and running and has little likelihood of attracting private finance. Safety fears, a problem since Chernobyl in 1986 and Three Mile Island more than 20 years ago, were highlighted this week when four men died when steam leaked at a Japanese nuclear plant. Officials say no radiation was released from the Mihama plant.
Nuclear stations usually take eight to 15 years to build, and almost that long to start repaying their financial and carbon investments. "The simple solution is that renewables and energy conservation can deliver the cuts immediately," says a Greenpeace spokesman. "All it needs is political will. To start a new nuclear programme would divert political will and money away from renewables, which are proven. The money which would have to be spent developing a new generation of nuclear stations could massively stimulate other forms of renewables."
Civil nuclear power was barely debated in Britain when introduced more than 40 years ago, and its prospects collapsed almost without public discussion when the financiers saw the figures did not stack up in the 1990s. If governments waving the green flag now try to persuade the public that a new generation of station is needed, then the arguments on both sides will be furious and divisive.
Even if nuclear were the best option to tackle global warming, it's likely to fail again on cost grounds, says the Rocky Mountain Institute, the US energy consultant which advises governments and big companies.
"Capital is finite," says a spokesman. "Each dollar invested in electric efficiency displaces nearly seven times as much carbon dioxide as a dollar invested in nuclear power, without any nasty side effects. If climate change is the problem, nuclear power isn't the solution. It's an expensive, one-size-fits-all technology that diverts money and time from cheaper, safer, more resilient alternatives."
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004