Nuclear lies are keeping you afraid

James Lovelock, The father of the Gaia theory, says far from being uniquely dangerous, only nuclear power can solve the food and energy crises ahead

James Lovelock says we should trust in nuclear power rather than in unproven wind turbines

Normally the media can smell a rat better than a hungry terrier, and I was slightly surprised that they did not wonder more about the murder of the Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 in London.

He was cruelly poisoned by a few hundred nanograms of the radioactive isotope polonium210. When swallowed it soon finds its way to every cell of the body, where it emits helium atoms that plough through the vital structures. An evil way to kill someone: a slow, unstoppable, tortured death.

There is ample evidence that the agents of the murder were Russian, and the container of the radioactive element was leaky enough to leave a trail from the airliner that brought the assassin to London to the hotel where the poison was added to a cup of the victim’s tea.

What an opportunity was missed by some imaginative journalist or thriller writer, to have set a scene somewhere in Moscow with a cast of professionals from security agencies or energy corporations.

Someone says: “You realise, do you, that a poisonous dose of polonium210 will cost about $10M? Why not use ricin - we know that that’s a reliable poison and a lot less visible to the media? Moreover, it will cost less than $1.”

Another bureaucrat adds: “Yes, and to make the polonium we have to seek time on a reactor which is already fully occupied with other important tasks.”

At which a senior manager intervenes. “Gentlemen,” he says, “the purpose of this action is not merely to punish a traitor - and that alone needs visibility and media amplification - but more importantly to keep the West frightened of all things nuclear. Our future as a world power depends on our ability to make them wholly dependent on us for their supply of oil and gas; their use of nuclear energy would free them of this dependency and we could lose our ability to make the world go the way we wish. Ten million dollars is nothing in that cause.”

This scene is no more than a figment of my imagination, but it grows more credible as we move further into the 21st century, when political power and business opportunity will more and more be linked to energy supply. It would be naive to expect energy companies to stand aside and see their profits cut by inexpensive nuclear energy, and the same must be true for the thwarting of national aspirations.

Our greatest future need in the UK will be a secure supply of food and energy. Soon the growing appetite of the world for both, and the worsening climate, will make the supply from abroad increasingly more expensive, and we will be driven more and more to produce food and generate electricity from our own resources.

We in Britain are no longer a major manufacturing nation and may have to leave the engineering development of our energy supply to those nations better equipped to do so. The worst of all possibilities would be for us to become the test-bed for unproven technology, and this is what is happening now with wind turbines.

We should regard nuclear energy as something that could be available from new power stations in five years and could see us through the troubled times ahead when the climate changes and there are shortages of food and fuel and major demographic changes.

Those in Britain should think of the troubled years of the 1970s and early 1980s, when industrial conflict over coal threatened electricity supplies. It was the availability of nearly 30% of the electricity we used from nuclear energy that sustained the nation and stopped the quarrel turning into a civil war. The only thing that stops an immediate build of new nuclear electricity is legislation put in place by previous governments and unreasoning fear.

There are now more than 440 nuclear power stations in the world, producing 17% of all the electricity used, about the same percentage as hydro-electricity. Other sources of renewable energy - biofuels, wind, etc - produce only 2%. The safety record, their cost and the local acceptability of these fission-powered stations make them the most desirable of all sources. So why in the First World do we still persist in the falsehood that they are uniquely dangerous?

I think we fail to welcome nuclear energy as the one good and reliable power source because we have been grievously misled by a concatenation of lies. Falsehood has built on falsehood and is mindlessly repeated by the media until belief in the essential evil of all things nuclear is part of an instinctive response.

It is often said that nuclear waste is uniquely deadly and will persist for millions of years and poison the global environment. All pollution by chemical elements persists. Lead pollution from a mine, smelter or factory where it is made into things lasts for ever; the same is true of mercury, arsenic, cadmium and thallium: these toxic elements are permanently with us. What is remarkable about nuclear waste is that it fades away. In 600 years the high-level waste from a nuclear power station is no more radioactive or dangerous than the uranium ore from which it originated. More importantly, there is hardly any nuclear waste to worry about. The yearly output of waste from a 1,000MW power station would fit in a London taxi.

Even government committees such as the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management propagate nuclear falsehood: one of its representatives said there is enough nuclear waste in Britain to fill the Albert Hall five times over. In fact, after 40 years of generating nuclear energy, there is barely enough to fill one Albert Hall. Compare this with the mile-high mountain, 12 miles in base circumference, of solidified carbon dioxide that the world makes every year. The nuclear waste is a minor burial problem, but the carbon dioxide waste will kill us all if we go on emitting it.

In addition to the negative propaganda directed at nuclear energy, there are almost as many untruths propagated about the favourable qualities of wind energy. Were these wind farms truly efficient and capable of resolving our power needs, I might be persuaded to grit my teeth and endure their ugly intrusion, but in fact they are almost useless as a source of energy.

It would take a vast area of countryside to provide enough land for a one-gigawatt wind-energy source. The wind blows only 25% of the time at the right speed to generate a useful quantity of electricity; therefore this monster would need the back-up of a near-full-size fossil-fuel power station to supply electricity whenever the wind blew too much or too little.

Take, for example, the British intention to build the world’s largest wind farm in the Thames estuary, which would have 341 turbines occupying an area of 90 square miles. It is claimed to be a one-gigawatt project and therefore equal in output to a typical nuclear power plant. In the hype attending it is the claim that it will provide enough electricity for one-third of London’s homes and save the emission of 1.9m tons of carbon dioxide. It sounds good until you realise that a full-size, presumably coal-burning, power station, emitting copious amounts of carbon dioxide, will have to be built to back it up when the wind does not blow.

Its real averaged output would be only 400MW of electricity. If it were steady, which it would not be, it would be enough for 830,000 homes each consuming 4,200kWh yearly. I am glad the oil company Shell had the wisdom, despite subsidies, to pull out of this flawed project.

To survive on these islands with a future population perhaps as large as 100 million requires a constant and reliable source of electricity from indigenous fuel. It would be madness to attempt it without nuclear energy. It is sad that so many of the green movement and their intellectual followers still oppose nuclear on grounds as insubstantial as a fear of hellfire and Satan.

© James Lovelock 2009

Extracted from The Vanishing Face of Gaia by James Lovelock, to be published on February 26 by Allen Lane at £20. Copies can be ordered for £18, including postage, from The Sunday Times Books First on 0845 271 2135