I am not trying to cast a shadow over what I hope will be a long and happy life for Mark Lesinski, one of the engineers entrusted with turning the site of the defunct Hinkley A nuclear power station, in Somerset, into a place where sheep may safely graze. But I do wonder how it feels to be working on a project that won't be finished until (barring some extraordinary medical breakthrough) long after he, and everybody else involved - and me - are dead.
"I'll probably have to go and put a message to future generations inside one of the reactor buildings before we seal them up," he says. What would the message be? "I haven't thought about that." Ken Allan, a colleague of Lesinski's, chips in with a suggestion: "If you've got a problem, don't phone me."
They started building Hinkley A in 1957. The site will be returned to green fields in 2103, having generated electricity for about one-third of its existence. For most of this century, the two 120ft-high blue metal boxes that enclose the station's shutdown reactors will stand, cold, sealed and silent, their dangerous residual radioactivity shut up inside.
Even 2103 will not be the end for the most radioactive waste products. Most likely they will, mid-century, be buried deep underground, somewhere in Britain. They won't be safe for a million years. A million years is a long time for humans, who live on average for 80, and governments, which live for four, to be making plans over. A million years ago, our ancestors were in Africa, and rival species of mammoth clashed on the English tundra.
Hinkley A today is a neat, quiet place, imbued with the kind of melancholy that monumental feats of engineering tend to inspire when their time is over. The Guardian does not have permission to go inside the buildings - from which the nuclear fuel has long since been removed - but Allan walks me past the deep shafts for filtering sea water, now being filled with rubble, shows me where a nuclear waste store is being built, unlocks the antique control room, all Bakelite switches and dials and - recent additions - Simpsons posters, and takes me inside the vast turbine hall.
You don't have to look very far to be reminded that the nuclear industry isn't dead yet. You just have to look over your shoulder. Next door is the gently steaming silver hulk of Hinkley B, a more modern nuclear power station, its atomic heart still glowing hot. Like all the British nuclear power stations still operating - there are a dozen left, out of 19 - Hinkley B has a switch-off date. It's supposed to be shut down for the last time in 2011. If all goes as planned, the last British nuclear power station, Sizewell B, will close in 2035. Will it be the last? Suddenly, for reasons that are not obvious, nuclear power is back on the British political agenda.
"Past performance of the nuclear industry shouldn't be seen as necessarily an indication of future performance," says Keith Parker, chief executive of the Nuclear Industry Association, the point man for the nuclear lobby. "We're left with an awful lot of redundant facilities, and waste has to be dealt with, regardless of whether we go down the nuclear path in future. But these are part of the historical legacy which the industry has, I maintain, put behind it."
About a mile inland from Hinkley Point, on a slight rise, I stand with Jim Duffy, a campaigner against nuclear energy, and look north towards the power stations: the great monolith of Hinkley B and the twin towers of Hinkley A. Duffy points to a field just to the left of the A site. That is where, until it expired in 1997, planning permission was held for a third nuclear power station, Hinkley C. The land is still owned by the company that runs Hinkley B, British Energy, and the first of any new generation of reactors would be built there. Duffy was an activist against Hinkley C in the 1980s and would be the leader of any new campaign.
Further west again is a piece of land set aside for a new wind farm. A campaign against it is being waged in local villages. "At home I've got a box of 2,000 stickers reading, 'Hinkley - say yes to wind, no to nuclear,'" says Duffy. "I think that's what other groups are doing, getting prepared, watching the media, seeing what's being said, just to be ready when it comes."
Until a few months ago, it seemed unlikely that Britain would build any new nuclear power stations. There's been no sudden rush of popular love for a mythical golden age of atom power. The country is not experiencing electricity shortages. Renewable wind energy is generating steadily more megawatts at steadily decreasing cost. The government's 2003 energy white paper described nuclear power as "an unattractive option". A few months later, the government reluctantly agreed a bail-out of British Energy, financially crippled because its electricity was too expensive. The rescue package cost the taxpayer a great deal of money, on top of the £50bn already set aside to clean up after nuclear power. Last year Tony Blair told a committee of MPs: "Unless you deal with the costs and the concerns that the public have, I think it is difficult to see the future for [nuclear power]." Last week, though, in his conference speech, Blair was talking about "an assessment of all options, including civil nuclear power".
The answer to the question "What's changed?" depends on whom you ask. If you talk to the sceptics, the answer is: "Nothing." If you talk to others - and not all are in the nuclear lobby - they argue that the dire consequences of spurning new nuclear stations have come more sharply into focus. Nuclear power, they say, is the only way Britain can both avoid electricity shortages in the future and meet its climate change obligations at a reasonable cost. What has changed is that political reluctance to accept this is weakening.
There is a subtly different alternative history of the past few years, and nuclear power's apparent fall from grace. This version says that the nuclear industry has always had powerful support in government, but that the privatised British Energy's financial screw-up in 2002 was so severe that the 2003 white paper couldn't afford to be too generous. Only now that BE's failure is fading from the public memory can the nuclear renaissance some hope for begin.
"Had the [financial collapse of BE] not happened, the outcome of the policy review in 2003 would probably have been different," says the energy consultant Nigel Cornwall. "But because BE was so incompetent, and the timing so dreadful from the government's point of view, the pro-nuclear people in the Cabinet - there are some - weren't able to push the nuclear track further. All they could do was damage limit. I think they think the time is now right."
A collapse in confidence
It is hard to identify the moment at which civilian nuclear power became tainted with the tang of public menace and financial failure. Some would argue that the introduction of atomic energy to the world, with the killing of more than 100,000 people in Japan, tarred anything nuclear. Yet for decades after 1945, the British public regarded the sprouting of nuclear power stations across the countryside with passivity or even patriotic enthusiasm for the country's scientific prowess.
Britain's first nuclear power station, Calder Hall in Cumbria, was opened by the Queen on October 17 1956. The monarch, observed the Guardian's anonymous Scientific Correspondent, "wore a winter coat of midnight blue velvet, with a hat to match and trimmed with white fur". Noticeably absent from the Guardian's extensive reports on the events, in hindsight, were three considerations - what was going to happen to the spent fuel, how the nuclear station was going to be dismantled when it reached the end of its life, and how much the whole endeavour was going to cost. The only reference to money was a mention of how the first hundred units of electricity to the Workington area were sold for 10 shillings, or 50p.
It would be more than two decades before the first large-scale protests against nuclear power in Britain, at the site of the proposed Torness power station near Dunbar, Scotland, in 1978. Yet those two decades saw a relentless drip-drip of negative messages. The cold war nuclear arms race, the increase in background radioactivity worldwide as a result of testing nuclear weapons, and the hideous consequences of nuclear war were always in the news; the notion of radioactivity creating freaks and mutant monsters became a staple of horror and sci-fi films. Imperceptibly, the quite real associations between Britain's civilian nuclear power stations and the country's military nuclear programme settled in the public consciousness, as did the notion of anything related to radioactivity as malign and sinister. A steady series of accidents and blunders, including the world's first serious civilian nuclear accident, a reactor fire at Windscale - today's Sellafield - in 1957, laid the foundations for the activism of the 70s and 80s.
Barely had the prototype British anti-nuclear protest been staged at Torness when Hollywood released its film The China Syndrome in 1979, which introduced the world to the idea of "meltdown" - a scenario in which cooling systems at a nuclear plant failed and the reactor core became so hot that it melted through the floor and down into the earth. A few days after the film came out, a real partial meltdown occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. Since then, the US hasn't authorised the building of a single new reactor.
Then, in 1986, came Chernobyl. One of the reactors at the plant in the Soviet Ukraine exploded. The fire, death, destruction, contamination and evacuation of the immediate area around the reactor was horrific enough. But what most shocked Europe was the reach of the invisible plume of radioactive particles that rose from the fuming hulk of the reactor. The accident was only admitted by the Soviet authorities after the radiation was detected in Sweden; the invisible cloud spread across central Europe, across France, and contaminated the hills of Britain. Invisible - but it cast a shadow over nuclear energy in Europe that has still not lifted. As of now, there are more than 200 nuclear reactors operating in Europe, but construction of only six of them was begun in the two decades since the Chernobyl disaster. India, China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and Iran are building or planning 55 new reactors between them. North America and western Europe combined plan precisely one.
The looming energy crisis
Yet it was neither Chernobyl, nor anti-nuclear protesters, that delivered what may still prove the death blow to the British nuclear industry. It was Margaret Thatcher.
It had been clear from the outset that nuclear electricity was never going to fulfill the dreams of its founding fathers in being too cheap to meter. But it was not until the era of privatisation exposed the electricity industry to the harsh light of the marketplace, that the full cost of nuclear hit home: the billions that had been wasted tinkering with impractical, uncommercial reactor designs; the billions required to deal with spent fuel and nuclear waste; the billions that had never been put aside for decommissioning costs at the end of each reactor's life; and the inability of nuclear to compete in a market where the price of electricity swung wildly according to the price of fossil fuels.
There's no envying the present government in the energy debate. It has to slalom round a close series of targets and constraints and, whichever way it goes, it will make itself unpopular. Baldly put, the problem is this: how do you keep supplying Britain with the electricity it needs, reliably and cheaply, over the next 50 years, while reducing emissions of global-warming causing carbon dioxide - CO2 - from power stations?
At the moment, we get about a third of our electricity from power stations burning coal, slightly more than a third from power stations burning gas, and a little less than a quarter from nuclear stations, with the remainder coming from oil, wind turbines, hydro-electric plants and other technologies. But the nuclear stations are closing. By 2020, there will only be three left. Most of the big coal-fired stations are due to close before then; they will fall foul of European regulations requiring expensive filters to be fitted to counter acid rain. And these filters do not reduce CO2 emissions: they increase them. There is good reason to believe that wind farms, mainly built offshore, will expand by 2020 to meet their target of providing 20% of the country's electricity - a figure already reached by Denmark. But that would only plug the gap created by the disappearing nuclear.
You could have a mix of 20% wind and 80% gas. But since Britain, having sucked its North Sea gas reserves dry, will have to import that gas - mainly from places such as Russia and the Middle East - there is government unease about the country becoming a prisoner of geopolitics. Besides, gas, while cleaner than traditional coal stations, still produces copious amounts of C02.
With the government's energy efficiency measures having less effect than hoped - and the country's overall demand for energy increasing - one obvious way to bring our C02 emissions down is to have a bigger share of electricity generated by means that don't fling carbon into the atmosphere. This is the gap into which the nuclear industry hopes to jump. Nuclear power stations, like wind turbines, generate almost no CO2 after they're built.
If the nuclear lobby was once inclined to deride wind power, it prefers now to patronise it. It might produce 20% of our electricity by 2020, they admit, but only with large subsidies, and that's as much as renewables are going to contribute. Nuclear plus wind power - that's the nuclear industry's preferred vision today.
"If you were to achieve your 20% electricity from renewables by 2020, but not replace nuclear, what you would be getting ... is no net benefit in terms of emissions," says Parker. "The likely mix would be 20% renewables and 80% gas, so you'd be replacing non-carbon emitting nuclear with non-carbon emitting renewables. If your target is to reduce carbon emissions, that doesn't seem to make a great deal of sense."
Pro-nuclear activists make their point eloquently. Their problem is this: if there is no alternative to nuclear power, and if time is short, why is nobody in Britain ready to build one?
I put the question slightly differently to Tony White, of Climate Change Capital, a London firm that analyses energy issues for businesses and organisations. Supposing I was an entrepreneur and I wanted to get into the electricity generation business in Britain. Supposing I had deep pockets for investment up front. Supposing I wanted to build something that would generate 1,000 megawatts of electricity - about as much as a medium-sized conventional or nuclear power station. Supposing I didn't care what the technology was. What would he recommend?
His answer is surprising. Not gas, not nuclear, but coal - specifically, a new type of coal power station called an IGCC, where the coal is stripped of C02, which can be sold to the offshore oil industry or "sequestered" - injected underground. "It's much cheaper to take C02 out of coal in an IGCC than out of natural gas," he says.
Nuclear is White's second choice - a stripped-down version of the Sizewell B design. But that would only work financially if the government was prepared to underwrite the cost of the public inquiry into building it and the enormous "back-end costs" - the cost of dealing with radioactive spent fuel and decommissioning the station. Such government commitments are unlikely. With the necessary safety features, White reckons, even the capital cost of building a nuclear station in the first place would be higher than that for an IGCC. But it was the long-term concerns, rather than the up-front money, which made nuclear second-best.
"It's more about risk and financeability. That's what the issue really is," says White. Surely the green lobby would object to a return to coal? Not necessarily. Tony Juniper, head of Friends Of The Earth - which, with Greenpeace and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, led the campaign against Sizewell B - is enthusiastic about IGCC stations.
"You smash up the coal completely before you use it. You extract the hydrogen, and therefore the carbon. You burn the hydrogen and all the C02 gets sequestered. You could even hook the plant up to a district heating plant," he says. "That technology's out there. We're saying we should be taking it up now. We've got 200 years of coal in this country."
Juniper sits in his small office in front of a map of the Amazonian rainforest, looking muscled and confined, as if he'd rather be challenging the chairman of Exxon to a stand-up fight than discussing energy economics. But his essential point - that new nuclear is not the only way, that there are alternatives - is one the big non-nuclear players in electricity generation echo.
"Over the next decade or so, somewhere between 20 and 30 gigawatts of capacity will disappear," says Simon Skillings, director of strategy and energy policy at E.ON UK, the German-owned company which, after British Energy, is the country's largest electricity generator. "That is virtually half the generating capacity we have in this country. It is just absolutely inconceivable that a cut in capacity terms will be met through renewables, by a very, very long way.
"There are some people who - I think, mistakenly - argue that the debate should be renewables or nuclear. The problem is so great you've got to hit renewables as hard as you can, energy efficiency as hard as you can, and you've still got a gap. That's the real debate. Is nuclear the right thing for that gap?"
Nuclear is a realistic technology, he says. But so is taking C02 from coal or gas and securing it underground. The electricity industry doesn't want the government to make the choice: it wants both to be made possible. "Neither are easy options for anyone," he says. "We need to have these made as credible options for the industry to take forward. There are many steps that need to be taken, certainly led by government, in order to make that happen." The public remains wary, however. In a poll for BBC2's Newsnight in May, 52% of those questioned said they opposed building new nuclear power stations, against 39% in favour.
The fear factor
Are they right to be so worried? No one is arguing with the fact that the materials used in nuclear reactions, and the parts of the power plants which become radioactive as a result, are extremely dangerous. But the truth is that in Britain the chances of being exposed to even the mildest excess dose of radiation from the civilian nuclear power system are vanishingly small. Five decades of experience with shielding, control and safety systems mean that even the likelihood of accidents and incompetence can be factored in.
No system is foolproof. Yet even the world's worst civilian nuclear disasters so far can be unequivocally linked to fewer than 100 deaths from radiation. Of 134 people who suffered massive doses of radiation in the immediate aftermath of Chernobyl, for instance, 42 have died. Yet scientists have failed to find a higher instance of one of the major radiation-induced cancers, leukaemia, in families living in contaminated areas of Ukraine, Belarus or Russia. Although hundreds of children in these countries have suffered non-fatal, but extremely traumatic and life-altering, thyroid cancer as a result of Chernobyl, these cases could easily have been prevented had the Soviet authorities not displayed a degree of callousness and incompetence that it would be hard to imitate.
Anti-nuclear campaigners point to what they say are cancer clusters near nuclear facilities such as Sellafield. Yet professional epidemiologists have so far been unable to link the two.
Today there are new safety concerns about terrorists targeting nuclear power stations, but that threat could be reduced: money could be spent to harden reactors against impact, or install last-ditch anti-aircraft defences to vapourise a hijacked plane. But it would be expensive. Like the general public wariness of nuclear power stations, like the public inquiries and design features required to ease that wariness, like the long, complex, cautious process of finding safe storage for nuclear waste, everything, in the end, comes down to money.
Opponents of nuclear power such as Juniper believe that, while the public, democratic campaign against a nuclear renaissance will hinge on popular fears about safety, waste and terrorism, the real battle will be fought in Whitehall on economic grounds. It is a battle that the nuclear industry, for all its formidable lobbying power of engineering firms, unions, scientists, sympathetic columnists, politicians and bureaucrats, will struggle to win.
One of the bizarre aspects of the nuclear comeback story is that British Energy itself refuses to say that it wants to build new nuclear power stations. The company refuses to comment at all, referring queries to Parker. No other firm has expressed a wish to build new reactors here. The same is true in North America and western Europe, with one exception: Finland, where a single new nuclear power station is being built.
The pro-nuclear faction likes to say that the Finnish station is being built with private money as a commercial venture. This is an exaggeration. Many of the private investors in the station are, in fact, municipal energy companies that have a near-monopoly on heating homes in their districts, a situation that has no parallel in this country. Helsinki Energy, for instance, is owned by Helsinki City Council. It invested in the new nuclear station because the council told it to.
Keith Parker, a civil servant with the DTI before he joined the Nuclear Industry Association, accepts that new nuclear cannot be built in Britain without government money and public subsidies. He calls this "creating the environment in which private sector investors would feel comfortable".
The industry needs four things, he says. It needs the government to change the rules so that planning permission for nuclear power stations can be granted more swiftly. It needs government money for inspectors to certify new reactor designs for use in Britain. And it needs the government to guarantee a minimum price for nuclear electricity to prevent it being rendered unprofitable if other ways of generating power turned out to be cheaper.
Finally, it - the mysterious "it", since no firm or consortium has said it would like to do this - needs to be able to build a large number of identical reactors, probably 10, that would, in theory, lower the cost because of economies of scale.
Politically, it's a highly indigestible menu. The justification is that we need the zero-emission capacity to meet our carbon targets, and that renewables get a big public subsidy, so why shouldn't nuclear? As long as electricity supply companies are subject to a renewables obligation, meaning they're supposed to buy a certain percentage of their power from renewable sources such as wind farms, why not add a nuclear obligation to electricity bills as well?
Wind versus nuclear
Despite the effort on all sides to show that the debate isn't wind versus nuclear, there are occasions when conflict breaks through. Parker likes to show you a report by the economics consultancy Oxera stating that a set of new nuclear power stations would cost about a third as much as "the £12bn cost of the renewables programme".
In other words, wind power expensive, nuclear power cheap (in comparison to wind). But Oxera's methodology has been challenged. It ignores the tens of billions of pounds of taxpayers' money which have been spent in developing and cleaning up after the nuclear industry over the past 50 years, and ignores the rate at which wind power technology is becoming cheaper - to the point that, Tony White warns, government action should be considered soon to stop the owners of onshore wind farms making "superprofits".
When no new reactors have been built in the west for so long, too, working out how much they might cost is an inexact science. "Nobody's built one of these things in Europe for 20 years," says Juniper. "Where are these figures coming from?" A report just out from an independent think tank, the New Economics Foundation, suggests that the costs of a new generation of reactors in Britain has been underestimated almost by a factor of three.
Perhaps the weakest element of the nuclear lobby's current campaign - "we haven't launched a concrete campaign," protests Parker - is the idea of urgency. Wind farms are now adding megawatts to the national grid faster than it is losing them from shut-down nuclear stations. More significantly, the pro-nuclear camp's warnings about a "generation gap" and excess carbon emissions are based on the idea that Britain's eight most modern nuclear power stations will begin to shut in 2011. Yet there is no reason for them to do so.
Jim Duffy won't like it, but there's no obvious justification for shutting Hinkley B in 2011. Two similar reactors have already had their lives extended by five years; it's thought that all eight reactors could have at least an extra 10 years of operation.
Extending their lives would buy the government years for a host of emerging technologies to be assessed. Wind farms offshore are likely to become more economic. Wave farms have already begun to move from the experimental stage to the heavily subsidised stage where wind was five years ago: the first wave farm is being launched in Portugal. Tidal energy, using the predictable power of marine currents, looks set to become a reliable complement to wind. The technology and economics of carbon capture need to be tested, as does the pebble-bed reactor, a safer, smaller and more quickly built nuclear reactor than the Sizewell type, based on a South African-Chinese design.
The British nuclear lobby's we-haven't-launched-a-campaign campaign has kicked in just when households are getting the chance to acquire new energy saving gadgets, such as the £3,000 WhisperGen, a boiler that also generates electricity, and a quiet, low-visibility rooftop wind turbine that costs £1,500. Both devices sell your surplus electricity back to the grid.
"The key issue is: when is it sensible to make a decision?" says one nuclear-sceptic Whitehall insider. "The answer would be when you've got the information on the options. Nuclear is a relatively mature technology. Carbon capture is a demonstration technology. Offshore wind is just about commercial. Other renewables are much more in the R&D stage. So information on them, and the next generation of nuclear stations, will only form in 2015-2020.
"When committing large amounts of support and money, you would want to do it when you had a clear idea of what would be the optimum mix. You can't say now it's going to be carbon capture, it's going to be wind and wave, it's going to be nuclear. The uncertainties are too large."
A commercial solution
Beaver and lobby away as the scientists and engineers might, it may, in the end, require brilliance from an entirely different direction to make the breakthroughs needed to keep the lights burning and the C02 emissions low over the decades to come. The country could comfortably do away with any pressure to build new nuclear power stations if only we bought and used energy in a smarter way.
What may be required is genius in accounts and marketing rather than nuclear physics or aerodynamics. One of the great failures of Britain's electricity market is that the companies which supply households with electricity compete to sell electricity at the lowest price, rather than competing to power, heat and light our homes at the lowest price. It's as if restaurants competed to stuff customers with the cheapest possible food without either party noticing or caring that, each time, two-thirds of the meal was left on the plate.
"Somehow or other, we've got to find a commercial answer that makes us money and makes our customers' lives better by them consuming less energy," says Skillings. "If I knew the answer, I could go away and collect my Nobel prize right now."
1938 The first successful experiment with nuclear fission is conducted in Berlin by the German physicists Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner and Fritz Strassman.
1942 The first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction is achieved by the Nobel-winning physicist Enrico Fermi under the squash court at the University of Chicago. Several nations begin construction of nuclear reactors at this point, primarily for weapons use.
1946 The United States Atomic Energy Commission is established to foster and control the peacetime development of atomic energy. Further development of nuclear technology is placed under civilian (not military) control.
1951 The first usable electricity from nuclear fission is produced at the National Reactor Testing Station, Idaho.
1953 In his Atoms for Peace speech, President Eisenhower proposes joint international cooperation to develop peaceful applications of nuclear energy.
1954 On June 27 the world's first nuclear powered electricity generator begins operation in the then closed city of Obninsk, USSR.
1954 The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 is passed to promote the peaceful uses of nuclear energy through private enterprise and to implement President Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace Program.
1956 On 17 October, Britain's first commercial nuclear power station, Calder Hall in Cumbria, is opened by the Queen.
1957 The graphite core of Windscale nuclear reactor, England, catches fire, releasing radiation into the environment. The United Nations establishes the International Atomic Energy Agency, its nuclear watchdog.
1960 Pittsburgh becomes the world's first nuclear-powered city.
1968 The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is signed to halt the spread of nuclear weapons. In exchange for agreeing not to create nuclear weapons, participating nations are given help to develop civilian nuclear power stations.
1979 Partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, Pennsylvania.
1986 Explosion of reactor four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the worst civilian nuclear accident to date. In 2005 the UN estimates that around 4,000 people will ultimately die from causes related to the incident.
2005 According to the World Nuclear Association, there are 441 commercial nuclear generating units throughout the world (23 in Britain), with a total capacity of about 368 gigawatts. An additional 30 or so power reactors are currently being constructed in 11 countries, notably China, the Republic of Korea, Japan and Russia.
2055 Assuming that the use of uranium continues at the present rate, all known low-cost uranium reserves will be exhausted.