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21 April, 2011

Nuclear Dilemma

Japanese nuclear engineers have finally succeeded in plugging the damaged reactor at Fukushima, stopping the deadly leak of radioactive water into the seas off the tsunami-devastated coastline. But they have not been able to plug the huge drain of confidence from nuclear energy around the world, which has forced governments to cut by half their projections for future nuclear generating capacity by 2035

Suddenly, all the old fears about the safety of nuclear power havereturned - many of them sharpened by memories of the world's worst nuclearaccident at Chernobyl, which marked its 25th anniversary in April.

Governments in much of Europe have announced that planned new reactors areto be put on hold. The German Government immediately took seven of its 17reactors offline for three months for safety checks, and is rethinking itsdecision to extend the life of older plants originally due to be phased out.
Environmentalists and Green parties have renewed their campaigns againstnuclear energy. And even China, the world's biggest emitter of greenhousegases with ambitious plans to move away from coal plants that currentlysupply 70 per cent of its energy, is likely to scale back its nuclearprogram.

The result, say climate change campaigners, is a disaster. Nuclear powergeneration emits no carbon pollution. Without it, most industrializedcountries will struggle to achieve their carbon reduction targets. Renewableenergy will never be able to make up the difference even in the medium term,
and a continuation of coal and gas plants, or even their expansion, willonly add to the world's greenhouse gases.

United Nations climate change officials were in gloomy mood at a recentmeeting in Bangkok that followed up last December's climate summit inMexico. Before the tsunami, it was estimated that new nuclear plants wouldadd 360 gigawatts of generating capacity to the global inventory by 2035.

That now seems highly unlikely - unless governments have second thoughtsabout their early rash promises to cut back nuclear programs after theJapanese disaster.

They may well do so. For the nuclear lobby is fighting back hard. It pointsout that, apart from Japan, very few of the world's 507 nuclear plants arein earthquake zones. And the plant at Fukushima failed largely because itwas very old, and of an antiquated design that is no longer being proposed
for anywhere. Scientists and engineers insist also that, despite the panicand distressing scenes of Japanese fleeing the exclusion zone aroundFukushima, the radiation threat to human health from this latest leak is notgreat: the confirmed death toll from what a European commissioned called a
"nuclear apocalypses" is nil. The emission was far, far less than theradiation leak from Chernobyl. And even there, researchers have found after25 years, the dangers have subsided and life has recovered much faster thanmost people imagined. By contrast, thousands of people are killed every yearin accidents in coal mines - 6,000 in China alone last year.

Despite the forecasts of some Western politicians that nuclear energywill be a "toxic" issue for all governments now, many are quietly hopingthat the panic will die down quickly. There are several reasons. First, theyknow that it will takes years and a vast amount of investment before thewind, waves and rivers can provide as much power as one or two new nuclearstations. Cash-strapped Western economies are not able to rely on renewableto cope with forecast energy shortages.

Secondly, without nuclear power, the West is dangerously dependent onRussiaand the Middle East for its energy needs. The rows between Moscow andKievover gas prices and Russia's cut-off in supplies were a wake-up callfor Western Europe. If politics becomes a dominating factor in energy
exports, no country is wise to put so much of its economy at risk bydepending on foreign gas supplies. This is the reason why Finland is nowbuilding the largest new nuclear plant in Europe: in order not to bedependent on its giant neighbor. And the current turmoil in the Middle Eastalso shows that oil is stable neither in price nor supply. That was thelesson of the Arab oil embargo in 1973. Libya's crude is no longer flowing.

But what if a revolution were to cut supplies from Saudi Arabia, the world'sbiggest producer? What would happen to the Western economies then? There are, of course, still big question marks over nuclear power. It isexpensive - and costs for new power stations are rising sharply. It is alsocostly and difficult to decommission old stations: the issue of wastestorage has not been resolved yet. There is always the danger of resourcesbeing diverted to make nuclear weapons. And when an accident happens, it canbe devastating, as Chernobyl showed. But even Greenpeace knows that climate
change may, in the long run, be more deadly. And without nuclearpower, globalwarning and all its catastrophic consequences may become a reality farsooner than anyone feared.

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