Twenty years after Chernobyl the nuclear industry is enjoying a renaissance it could only have dreamed of a few years ago. The twin issues of climate change and energy security have driven it up the political agenda both in Europe and in the US.
For example, if you log on to the website of the trade body for the civil nuclear industry in the UK, the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA), a banner headline reads: “Nuclear: Climate Friendly Energy”.
Similarly, if you look at the International Nuclear Forum Website is says: “Nuclear energy is a necessary technology to help prevent climate change. Nuclear is part of the solution”.
So the message has changed: Nuclear is no longer about Chernobyl, and its deadly legacy of cancer wards clustered with scared people. Nuclear is no longer worries about waste and fears over terrorism. Nuclear is a “solution”. Nuclear is “the future”.
The second life-line thrown to the industry is energy security. The nuclear industry is promoting itself as a secure panacea to the problem of dwindling energy supply. Another group in the UK, the Supporters of Nuclear Energy talks about the “looming energy crisis” and asks the question “what will happen when the lights go out?” The lights of course will not go out, they argue, if we build more nuclear power plants.
One person who is enthusiastic about nuclear as a solution to energy security is President Bush, who is leading a “nuclear renaissance” in the US. Bush argues that “a secure energy future for America must include more nuclear power,”. Last year Congress passed an Energy Bill that includes up to six billion dollars of subsidies for those building nuclear plants, and 1.25 billion dollars for an experimental new type of nuclear reactor. “Our goal is to start the construction of new nuclear power plants by the end of this decade”, says Bush.
In the UK, the government has just finished a public consultation exercise as part of a wide ranging review on energy. Although no official decision on nuclear has been made, it is widely known that Prime Minister Tony Blair is in favour of a new generation of nuclear power plants. Indeed one government insider says that two months before the government announced its review, Blair convened a secret meeting to give the green light to nuclear. So the decision has already been made.
But we know that nuclear is not the solution. Nor are fossil fuels, as the Guardian columnist George Monbiot argued, foolishly yesterday. Twenty years after Chernobyl, it would be wrong to invest in nuclear again. It would be wrong to prolong the oil age by using gas. It really is time to herald the new renewable age.
Just take wind: To mark the 20th Anniversary of Chernobyl, the Global Wind Energy Council argues that “only the tip of the iceberg has been reached in terms of the true deployment potential of wind power”. They say: “Two decades of technological progress have resulted in today’s wind turbines producing 180 times more electricity, at less than half the cost, than the early 1986 vintage models. Wind is now capable of delivering large amounts of power as it is already the case in the first-mover countries such as Denmark (20% of the electricity consumption), Germany (6%) and Spain (8%)”.
To truly realize a renewable future, we need to stop subsidizing nuclear, we need to stop subsiding oil. We need to break the hold of the nuclear and oil lobbies on Bush and Blair. That is the challenge. For it would be going from the frying pan to the fire if we went from an Oil Change to a nuclear revival.