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Sunday 3 April 2011

Stop the self-delusion and bring on nuclear energy

Ruth Dudley Edwards explains how the crisis in Japan has actually allayed her fears of nuclear meltdown

I can just hear the conversations that raged about energy sources from the day man first found out how to make fire. "I don't like that fire! It's dangerous. Didn't you hear a hut got burned down in the next valley?"

"So you want us to shiver, eat our food raw and have the wolves come at night to pick us off?'

"No. Just hurry up and find us a safe alternative."

The worried have been repeating that request throughout the millennia as fearsome accidents were caused by steam, gas or electrical faults, millions of men were killed or injured mining for fossil fuel, and oil polluted vast areas of ocean. Yet apart from the Amish, there are few prepared to give up the conveniences provided by ever more sophisticated power-driven technology.

The truth is that, though we have come far, there is still no such thing as a completely safe and effective energy source. There's a price to be paid in blood, money or efficiency for everything.

By investing heavily in biofuels, the United States diverted corn to the fuel chain and unwittingly caused food riots in Mexico. Wind turbines are noisy, cause environmental damage, kill birds, deface the landscape, are at their least effective in the weather conditions when demand is highest and have to be heavily subsidised by government.

And so we come to nuclear power, about which I've always been rather nervous -- not least because I rarely trust scientists telling us they have everything under control. On pragmatic grounds I accepted there seemed to be no credible option, that no one died after the 1979 Three Mile Island accident and that the damage to people from the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 had been exaggerated. But my fears were exacerbated with the arrival of insane Islamists bent on destroying Western civilisation. Occasionally, I fretted over the horror a terrorist bomb at Windscale could unleash.

And then came Japan and a 9.0 earthquake and though the media were whipping up global hysteria, my fears were allayed. As the evangelical green fanatic George Monbiot -- with whom I rarely agree about anything -- put it when explaining that events at Fukushima had converted him to the cause of nuclear power: "A crappy old plant with inadequate safety features was hit by a monster earthquake and a vast tsunami. The electricity supply failed, knocking out the cooling system. The reactors began to explode and melt down. The disaster exposed a familiar legacy of poor design and corner-cutting . . . Atomic energy has just been subjected to one of the harshest of possible tests, and the impact on people and the planet has been small."

Absolutely, George. Couldn't have put it better myself. Bring on nuclear power: controlled, well-regulated, safe nuclear power, housed in bomb-proof plants, and make sure the scientists really do work out what to do with the waste.

So why are so many drawing a completely different inference from events? Last week, Fukushima helped double the Green vote in Baden-Wuerttemberg and seize it from Chancellor Merkel's party. Mrs Merkel has executed a panicky U-turn and is calling for an exit from nuclear power. Nicolas Sarkozy, president of the most nuclear-dependent country in the world, has no such option, but is calling -- quite sensibly -- for international safety standards on nuclear power to be instituted worldwide by the end of the year.

In the UK, the deputy prime minister, Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, whose party is also vulnerable to the Greens, is suggesting that the future of nuclear power is in doubt, and stresses that the government (which heavily subsidises inefficient turbines) will contribute nothing to the building of nuclear facilities. Ireland? We're doing our usual. We won't have nuclear power at home, but we'll import it.

It's time to abandon self-delusion. Just as we've run out of money, we're about to run out of energy. Oil is a finite resource, and much of it is bought from unstable countries. Without new nuclear facilities, the United Kingdom will be grinding to a halt within a very few years and there won't be any spare capacity on the national grid to sell to Ireland.

President Obama, who in opposition used to think the wave of a green wand would solve energy problems, has just publicly accepted that biofuels, renewals, energy efficiency, restraint and increased domestic oil production are not enough. He has embraced nuclear power, although ordering a safety review that will incorporate lessons learned from the Japanese crisis.

Maybe mankind will ultimately find some way of harnessing the sun efficiently, cheaply and safely, or do something even smarter. But in the meantime, we have to eat, be warm and keep the wolves away. There is no money, there may soon be no energy and -- sure as hell -- there's no Santa Claus.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards