The resurgence of nuclear power?


We haven’t heard an awful lot

about nuclear power lately. Does that mean it’s a technology whose time has come

and gone? Not likely. There remains the possibility that nuclear power could

make a comeback through the backdoor, courtesy of the so-called ‘joint

implementation’ mechanism of the Kyoto climate protocol. Joint implementation is

intended to allow developed countries to offset obligatory cuts in emissions by

promoting the use of nuclear power in former Soviet and Eastern European


However, one positive outcome

of the failed climate talks in The Hague last year was, according to journalist

Oliver Tickell writing in The Independent, ‘that nuclear power was dealt a firm

(if not decisive) "no" and is now unlikely to qualify’ as an emissions reduction

policy under the Kyoto Protocol. That remains to be seen, given that the nuclear

industry has considerable lobbying resources.

Indeed, other than the

industry itself, there are those who stubbornly claim that the need to cut

greenhouse gas emissions is justification for continuing – or even expanding –

the super-costly nuclear industry. Ian Fells, Professor of Energy Conversion at

Newcastle University, is one notable example from academia: ‘I regard [Prime

Minister] Blair’s target of a 20 per cent cut [in greenhouse gas emissions] by

2010 as really heroic. It will not be achieved without nuclear power.’ The

nuclear industry believes that ‘climate change is the best friend we have had in

the past 40 years’.

However, even using

conventional economic analyses that ignore environmental and social costs,

nuclear power generation is uneconomic. It is therefore not surprising that in

1997, British Energy, a privatised company operating Britain’s 7 advanced

gas-cooled reactors and the pressurised-water reactor at Sizewell B in Suffolk,

was railroaded by the stock market into stating it would build no more nuclear

plants. By 2020, if current UK government policy is maintained, there will be

just a handful of nuclear reactors – though still a handful too many – operating

in Britain. Despite a past of massive state subsidy, guaranteed markets, debt

write-off and insurance cover, Britain’s nuclear industry is slowly dying, and

rightfully so.

In the US, the Atomic Energy

Commission (AEC) has been responsible for spending vast sums of taxpayers’ money

on nuclear power. According to environmentalist Steven Gorelick, government

funds were used to commission the first full-scale nuclear reactor because the

AEC did not believe that private industry would make the necessary huge

investment in nuclear power research. Afterwards, in order to ‘further spur

private industry’s participation in nuclear power development’, the government

provided funding and other assistance, but industry designed, constructed and

owned the reactors. Gorelick reports that, ‘US government aid to the nuclear

industry has continued unabated, with almost $1 billion budgeted for nuclear

power research and development in 1992, and with additional expenditures hidden

in military budgets every year’.

In 1976, the UK Royal

Commission Report on Nuclear Power and the Environment stated that ‘it would be

irresponsible and morally wrong to commit future generations to the consequences

of fission power on a massive scale unless it has been demonstrated beyond

reasonable doubt that at least one method exists for the safe isolation of these

wastes for the indefinite future’. A quarter of a century later, the failure to

find ‘safe’ methods of disposing of radioactive waste should mean that the

nuclear industry is shut down and that ‘existing nuclear waste must be stored

above ground where [it] can be managed, monitored and retrieved if necessary,

rather than dumped where environmental contamination is inevitable’.

Towards the end of 1999, it

was revealed that personnel at a demonstration facility run by British Nuclear

Fuels Limited in Sellafield, Cumbria, had falsified safety data relating to fuel

pellets of mixed plutonium and uranium oxide (MOX). Some of the pellets had

already been shipped to Japan to be used in its nuclear power programme. The

Japanese government was horrified and called a halt to further imports of the

reprocessed fuel. British ministers were embarrassed and apologised profusely to

the Japanese, while claiming that safety had not been breached.

Then, in February 2000, the

UK government’s own Nuclear Installations Inspectorate released three damning

reports. These covered the poor management and lack of effective inspection at

Sellafield, problems surrounding the storage of high level radioactive waste on

the site and BNFL’s falsification of safety data for the MOX fuel sent to Japan.

Tampering with safety records appeared to have been going on since 1996. Pete

Roche, a Greenpeace nuclear campaigner said: ‘These reports are a shocking

expose of Sellafield’s plutonium business. This is a company that is dealing

with one of the most hazardous materials known to mankind and they have been

shown to be guilty of lax management and falsifying records.’

The German nuclear company

PruessenElektra, the country’s second largest electricity generator, responded

to the crisis by switching off its nuclear reactor and removing fuel rods which

it had obtained from the Sellafield plant. At the end of February, 2000, BNFL’s

chief executive resigned. In March, the German environment minister, Juergen

Trittin, said that Germany would ban imports of plutonium fuel (MOX) from

Britain until it was satisfied with Sellafield’s safety standards as ‘a good

first step to ending Britain’s plutonium trade for good.’ Meanwhile, Switzerland

announced that it wished to end the reprocessing of its nuclear fuel at

Sellafield. Calls increased for the facility to be shut down or to be limited

to, as Friends of the Earth put it, ‘cleaning-up and managing the nuclear

legacy, both in the UK and around the world.’

At the end of last year,

BNFL’s responses to government recommendations following the scandalous

falsification of safety records at Sellafield were accepted by the Health and

Safety Executive’s Nuclear Installations Inspectorate. BNFL’s chief executive,

Norman Askew, responded: ‘This is excellent news for the company’, adding that

it opened the way to the eventual commissioning of a fully operational MOX plant

at Sellafield. Environment Minister Michael Meacher is currently considering the

future of the plant.

However, in the latest twist,

the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate reported in February 2001 that, in fact,

BNFL had so far failed to fully implement 25 of the 28 Sellafield site safety

recommendations the NII made last year. Full completion would take until the end

of 2002. "When it comes to safety and the environment, Sellafield is a disaster

zone," said Greenpeace spokesperson, Dr Helen Wallace, "Dangerous near-misses

and dodgy practices continue unabated."

Nuclear power, like major

fossil fuel use, forms no part of a sustainable energy portfolio. The

difficulty, as with so many other issues directly affected by economic

globalisation, is the corporate-led drive for expansion, which requires more

energy, more resources, more customers. The concern of big business, aided by

governments keen for investment, is to achieve ‘sustained growth’, where ‘market

liberalisation drives technology, competition and efficiency’ in an ‘uncertain

world of global markets’.

Large corporations are

desperate to keep a tight control on technological developments in order to

protect profit margins. According to Dr John Mills, Director of Corporate

Affairs of Shell UK: ‘To reduce risk, it is essential that Shell Š is present in

every major market and in every major energy technology Š We believe [that] this

approach could provide opportunities for smaller firms who enter into

relationships with us. We will be looking for ways of establishing links that

help us keep an eye on developments and allow us to invest at the appropriate


Being ‘present in every major

market’ for a large corporation like Shell means keeping a watchful eye out for

technological breakthrough wherever it may occur – inside or outside its own

sphere of operations – and then stepping in to influence, or even take control

of, its future direction by snapping up the company. If citizens around the

world continue to acquiesce in this process, whereby corporations and

governments centralise power unto themselves, then the means of energy

generation – together with the other forces of globalisation – will continue to

harm local people and environments around the planet.


David Cromwell is a

scientist and writer based in Southampton. His first book, ‘Private Planet’

will be published in the UK later this year.






Leave a comment