Nuclear Power and its Opponents

Walter Patterson

  • Red Alert: The Worldwide Dangers of Nuclear Power by Judith Cook
    New English Library, 331 pp, £8.95, September 1986, ISBN 4 503 99905 2

‘For one side of the argument about nuclear energy British Nuclear Fuels urge you to write to this address.’ The exhortation, in 144-point type, fills most of each side of a double-sided full-page advertisement in the national press in Britain. On the first side ‘this address’ is that of Greenpeace: on the second that of British Nuclear Fuels (BNFL). The ad epitomises a key problem of the ‘argument about nuclear energy’: it assumes that the ‘argument’ has two sides, and exactly two. If you are not for us – whoever ‘we’ may be – you are against us. If you are not ‘pro-nuclear’ you are ‘anti-nuclear’.

A corollary of this attitude is the assumption that the two sides of the story are mutually exclusive: one side will tell you the good news, and the other the bad. For the good news about nuclear power you turn to BNFL, or the Central Electricity Generating Board, or their equivalents in other countries. You assume that they will not tell you any of the bad news, or that at best they will reveal it belatedly, reluctantly and partially. By the same token, if you want only the bad news you turn to, say, Judith Cook and Red Alert, with its unambiguous subtitle, ‘The Worldwide Dangers of Nuclear Power’. Turn to her we shall, in due course: and the news is indeed bad, though perhaps not quite what she intends.

‘Pro-nuclear’ and ‘anti-nuclear’ are shibboleths by which to identify the good guys and the bad guys. If you’re one of the bad guys, anything you say is suspect, to be ignored or challenged. Your motives are base, your outlook narrow, and you probably mistreat your children. It is an unhelpful, even pernicious dichotomy, which fails utterly to address the real issues of nuclear power: issues that cannot be wished away by either ‘pro-nuclear’ or ‘anti-nuclear’ sloganeering.

Like it or not, nuclear power is now a fact of life. We are where we are; we cannot start from somewhere else. October 1986 marked the 30th anniversary of the ceremony at which the Queen inaugurated the flow of electricity from Calder Hall on the north-west coast of England, acclaimed internationally as the world’s first nuclear power station. Three decades later, 391 power reactors are operating in 26 countries, supplying 265,000 megawatts of electricity. In some countries, notably France, Belgium and Switzerland, more than half the electricity used is supplied by nuclear power stations. Many millions of people are employed in building, operating and servicing the world’s nuclear stations. No one is going to wave an ‘anti-nuclear’ wand and make all this vast panoply of nuclear hardware and nuclear materials disappear. On the other hand, only the most grotesque ‘pro-nuclear’ diehard could deny that nuclear power is in trouble; and the trouble is only incidentally to do with the ‘anti-nuclear’ opposition.

At the end of the Sixties, when I first became involved with nuclear power issues, the picture looked very different. The nuclear industry was contemplating a global electro-nuclear future. In the early Seventies, organisations like the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development were anticipating that by the year 2000 nuclear energy would be supplying more than half the world’s electricity, from a nuclear generating capacity estimated to be as much as 4,500,000 megawatts. The US Atomic Energy Commission foresaw 400 plutonium-fuelled fast-breeder power stations in operation in the US by the year 2000. In the UK, as recently as September 1975, the Atomic Energy Authority, in evidence to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, put forward a reference programme that entailed having 104,000 megawatts of nuclear stations in operation by the year 2000, of which 33,000 megawatts would be fast-breeders.

The prevailing nuclear euphoria was only intensified by the oil price rise of 1973-74: nuclear power would spring the industrial world from the toils of OPEC. Orders for nuclear stations flooded in – more than forty in 1973 and a similar number in 1974 in the US alone. Alas for nuclear expectations: the oil shock triggered a global economic recession so severe that the use of energy of every kind – but especially electricity – flattened out almost to zero growth. Meanwhile the bills for the spate of new nuclear stations began to fall due; and as one station after another slipped further and further behind in its construction schedule, the bills mounted. The flood of nuclear orders subsided to a trickle.

By the mid-Seventies opposition to nuclear power had become vigorous and outspoken in many industrial countries. Nuclear manufacturers and electricity suppliers had to defend their nuclear plans in court cases and planning inquiries, and saw more and more judgments go against them. The international nuclear community lamented long and loud that their opponents were causing delays and cost increases; misguided environmental opposition, they said, was the main reason for the malaise settling over the nuclear dream. Dispassionate analysis suggested a different conclusion. The delays, cost-overruns and disappointing performance which beset the industry in the UK and the US, for instance, were in large measure a result of over-optimistic cost estimates, inadequate design work, late delivery of essential components, low productivity, labour disputes on site, and other failures of project management which had nothing whatever to do with the opponents of nuclear energy. The nuclear industry blamed its critics for problems that were mainly self-inflicted, if not indeed inherent in the technology.

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